Missouri Dem. lawmaker blasts state GOP for 'dystopian future' proposal to defund public libraries

Missouri Republicans want to defund public libraries.

Per Truthout, this comes after librarians challenged a recently proposed GOP-backed law banning "sexually explicit" books from schools and libraries, which has resulted in the elimination of "hundreds of" reads with"LGBTQ characters or racial justice themes," as well as "Holocaust history and human anatomy."

Heartland Signal tweeted a clip of Merideth's speech, writing, "MO State Rep. Peter Merideth (D) on a just-passed GOP budget defunding libraries: 'They actually took out all state aid for public libraries explicitly because librarians are suing over their First Amendment rights ... We are starting to live in a dystopian future from 1984.'"

READ MORE: Openly gay Missouri Republican masterfully stumps anti-LGBTQ bill author

The state congressman is referring to State GOP Rep. Cody Smith's proposed bill, which would cut all funding for public libraries in the state, according to Truthout. The legislation was introduced "after a lawsuit was filed by the Missouri Libraries Association (MLA) in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against a state law that bans certain materials from schools and libraries."

Merideth said, "Often when we tell the public about the things that are getting voted on in here, they think when we, we tell them what happened just today, that's gotta be partisan rhetoric and hyperbole."

He continued, "It's not, these are the things actually passing."

READ MORE: Missouri Supreme Court refuses to disbar lawyer who sexually assaulted his clients

If the legislation is passed next week, Truthout reports:

School officials, including librarians, who are found in violation of the law are subject to fines of up to $2,000 and jail sentences of up to a year.

Merideth emphasized, "we're talking about book bans from the government and then the government being mad at librarians as the threat to our kids and defunding public libraries. That's the real world here today in Republica- led Missouri."

Watch the video below or at this link.

READ MORE: 'Scoring cheap political points': Missouri Democrats rip Republican proposal to tax groceries but not guns

Truthout's full report is available at this link.

'Pertaining to Rethuglicans': TN Sen. slammed for projecting GOP 'ban' policies onto Democrats

U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) took the act of projecting to a new level by suggesting Democrats recently discovered the words "ban" and "control," and complaining the party tends to overuse the terms.

The senator tweeted, "The Democrats simply can't help themselves; the words "ban" and "control" have entered their daily vocabulary."

Blackburn's comment comes just days after House Republicans passed the "Parents' Bill of Rights," which will likely lead to "book bans and targeting of LGBTQ children."

READ MORE: Senate Republicans to introduce nationwide abortion ban

Additionally, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has led the charge among GOPers when it comes to banning rights — passing the "Don't Say Gay" bill, and "by banning an advance placement course on Black studies from Florida high schools."

The right-wing senator's assertion led to a wave of responses, encouraging the lawmaker to, perhaps, look in the mirror.

Anita Creamer: "You and your GOP friends want to ban books, vaccines, abortion, LGBTQ rights and on and on."

@techandtrading: "How about them books that the FL gov is banning? Are you now saying he's a dem? I'm so confused by you GOP'ers."

READ MORE: Attorney behind Texas vigilante abortion ban drafting similar book ban bill to sue librarians

@GrampAntifa: "Like how you want to 'ban' TikTok?"

@Gardendelightfu: "Who is the one banning books, banning what words can't even be used in schools, banning what private businesses can do? Not Democrats."

@u_rocks4: Unbelievable projection! The sheer audacity and gall!"

@TJWbrk: "What in the world are you talking about!? Republicans are banning books & drag shows left & right. Republicans are controlling women's bodies & the healthcare of our trans brothers & sisters. You’re being so divisive by spreading these lies & false narratives to stay in power."

READ MORE: 'We need more politicians reading books': Jamie Raskin blasts GOP for claiming book bans keep kids safe

Pamela Castellana: "Perhaps you should visit the Republican controlled Florida legislative session @MarshaBlackburn University tenure? Banned. Open primaries? Banned. Uni majors like Women's studies? Banned. Non partisan elections? Banned. All Rep. All overreach."

@debestridge: "Usually pertaining to Rethuglicans………"

Rights'@camannwordsmith: "Every accusation is a confession"

READ MORE: 'Reprehensible' and 'disgraceful': House Democrat scorches GOP book bans and 'Parental Bill of Rights

'Libraries saved my life': Internet archive to appeal 'chilling' federal ruling against digital books

Internet Archive vowed to appeal after a U.S. district court judge on Friday sided with four major publishers who sued the nonprofit for copyright infringement.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Internet Archives operated a controlled digital lending system, allowing users to digitally check out scanned copies of purchased or donated books on a one-to-one basis. As the public health crises forced school and library closures, the nonprofit launched the National Emergency Library, making 1.4 million digital books available without waitlists.

Hachette, HarperCollins, John Wiley & Sons, and Penguin Random House sued Internet Archive over its lending policies in June 2020. Judge John G. Koeltl of the Southern District of New York on Friday found in Hachette v. Internet Archive that the nonprofit "creates derivative e-books that, when lent to the public, compete with those authorized by the publishers."

"In a chilling ruling, a lower court judge in New York has completely disregarded the traditional rights of libraries to own and preserve books in favor of maximizing the profits of Big Media conglomerates," declared Lia Holland, campaigns and communications director at the digital rights group Fight for the Future.

"We applaud the Internet Archive's appeal announcement, as well as their steadfast commitment to preserving the rights of all libraries and their patrons in the digital age," they said. "And our admiration is shared—over 14,000 people having signed our pledge to defend libraries' digital rights at this week alone."

Holland continued:

From a basic human rights perspective, it is patently absurd to equate an e-book license issued through a surveillance-ridden Big Tech company with a digital book file that is owned and preserved by a privacy-defending nonprofit library. Currently, publishers offer no option for libraries to own and preserve digital books—leaving digital books vulnerable to unauthorized edits, censorship, or downright erasure, and leaving library patrons vulnerable to surveillance and punishment for what they read.

In a world where libraries cannot own, preserve, or control the digital books in their collections, only the most popular, bestselling authors stand to benefit—at the expense of the vast majority of authors, whose books are preserved and purchased by libraries well after publishers have stopped promoting them. Further, today a disproportionate number of traditionally marginalized and local voices are being published in digital-only format, redoubling the need for a robust regime of library preservation to ensure that these stories survive for generations to come.

A future in which libraries are just a shell for Big Tech's licensing software and Big Media's most popular titles would be awful—but that's where we're headed if this decision stands. No book-lover who wants an equitable and trustworthy written world could find such a future desirable. Accordingly, we plan to organize an in-person action to demand robust ownership and preservation standards for digital books and libraries. For updates on when and where, check

More than 300 authors last September signed an open letter led by Fight for the Future calling out publishers and trade associations for their actions against digital libraries, including the lawsuit targeting Internet Archive.

"Libraries saved my life as a young reader, and I've seen them do as much and more for so many others," said signatory Jeff Sharlet. "At a time when libraries are at the frontlines of fascism's assault on democracy, it is of greater importance than ever for writers to stand in solidarity with librarians in defense of the right to share stories. Democracy won't survive without it."

Fellow signatory Erin Taylor asserted that "the Internet Archive is a public good. Libraries are a public good. Only the most intellectually deprived soul would value profit over mass access to literature and knowledge."

Koeltl's ruling came just two days after the American Library Association released a report revealing that in 2022, a record-breaking 2,571 titles were challenged by pro-censorship groups pushing book bans, a 38% increase from the previous year.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday passed the so-called Parents Bill of Rights Act, which education advocates and progressive lawmakers argue is intended to ban books and further ostracize marginalized communities.

'Get this porn out of our schools': Parent challenges Utah book ban by requesting the Bible be removed

A Utah parent is asking for the Bible to be eliminated from classrooms, after a GOP lawmaker backed a bill ordering the removal of "pornographic" books from schools, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

Per Newsweek, the parent's petition was submitted anonymously following the bill's passing in May of 2022.

"Get this PORN out of our schools," the parent wrote in their request, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

READ MORE: 'We need more politicians reading books': Jamie Raskin blasts GOP for claiming book bans keep kids safe

Hailing the Bible as "one of the most sex-ridden books around," the petition continued, "If the books that have been banned so far are any indication for way lesser offenses, this should be a slam dunk."

The parent also wrote, "Incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape, and even infanticide," referring to issues included in the Bible. "You’ll no doubt find that the Bible, under Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-1227, has 'no serious values for minors' because it's pornographic by our new definition."

Local Christian leaders and groups disagree with the parent, along with Republican Rep. Ken Ivory, who according to The Salt Lake Tribune, sponsored the legislation "to remove pornographic books from school libraries."

The lawmaker referred to the parent's ask to nix the Bible from school bookshelves as "antics that drain school resources."

READ MORE: 'Reprehensible' and 'disgraceful': House Democrat scorches GOP book bans and 'Parental Bill of Rights'

The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

The parent points to action by Utah Parents United, a right-leaning group that has led the efforts to challenge books here for being inappropriate. It has largely centered on texts written by and about the LGBTQ community and people of color.

Based on the new Utah law, something is indecent if it includes explicit sexual arousal, stimulation, masturbation, intercourse, sodomy or fondling. According to state attorneys, material doesn’t have to be 'taken as a whole' in those situations or left on the shelf during a review. If there is a scene involving any of those acts, it should be immediately removed.

According to Newsweek, a local youth pastor said, "I've seen pornography and I've read the Bible—and they are different."

READ MORE: 'Fear is not freedom': Centenarian shreds Florida book bans as Nazi behavior

The Salt Lake Tribune's full report is available at this link (subscription required). Newsweek's report is here.

'We need more politicians reading books': Jamie Raskin blasts GOP for claiming book bans keep kids safe

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) called out the irony of Republicans' efforts to ban books during a recent House floor debate over parental oversight of K-12 schools.

@Acyn shared a clip of the congressman's speech via Twitter, writing, "Raskin is very good at this," referring to his ability to point out the hypocrisy his GOP colleagues are clearly displaying.

The video begins with Raskin saying, "Two years ago, more than 1600 books were banned in the United States of America. Here are three of the key books that the right-wingers have been going after."

READ MORE: Jamie Raskin blasts the GOP's 'moral agnosticism'

The congressman proceeds to hold up a copy of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which he said is "about the dangerous fanaticism, authoritarianism, and abuse of the Taliban. A right wing religious fundamentalist movement, all about censorship and repressing women's control over their own bodies and their own fertility."

Next, Raskin shows a copy of The Handmaid's Tale, describing it as "Margaret Atwood's extraordinary dystopian novel about a right wing misogynist movement, which uses high technology and depraved religious ideology to control not only the minds of their followers, but the private and public lives and the fertility of women."

Lastly, "because they have no sense of irony" — he says about the Republican lawmakers — George Orwell's 1984. Raskin continued, "They're always trying to censor this one."

In 2019, George Packer wrote about the sustained "influence" of 1984 for The Atlantic, saying, "It's almost impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance, authoritarian politics, or perversions of truth without dropping a reference to 1984."

READ MORE: 'Fear is not freedom': Centenarian shreds Florida book bans as Nazi behavior

Raskin emphasized, "We need more politicians reading books in America, and fewer politicians trying to censor books in America."

He continued, "It's amazing to me, to see politicians who oppose a universal violent criminal background check and who defend assault weapons after the massacres at Columbine — after Parkland, Florida; after Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut; after Uvalde; after Santa Fe, Texas; that they are now going to keep America's children safe by banning The Handmaid's Tale and 1984. We can do better for the children of America."

Watch the video below or at this link.

READ MORE: 'Reprehensible' and 'disgraceful': House Democrat scorches GOP book bans and 'Parental Bill of Rights'

The Atlantic's full report is available here.

'I identify with the rustics': DeSantis ridiculed for pretending he was 'culturally raised' in the midwest

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is being ridiculed for pretending in his book that he was raised in "the midwest," particularly swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay," the book says, according to excerpts. "But culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio — from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep. This made me God-fearing, hard-working and America-loving."

Some attacked DeSantis for implying that only people in western PA and NE Ohio went to church weekly. In fact, in many Protestant Christian churches, particularly in the southern states, it's not unusual to go to church twice a week, on Sunday and again on Wednesday, for fellowship gatherings, particularly among youth groups. Choir practice was usually at least one night a week as well.

Writer Sarah Rumpf noted that having grown up in Florida, she knew a lot of hard-working and God-fearing people, despite not growing up in Pennsylvania or Ohio.

The Lincoln Project's Rick Wilson had fun with the claim, but he also agreed with Rumpf that it was shocking for the governor to imply that his own state wasn't hard-working or God-fearing.

"The values I learned in Levy County — poaching, meth, and guiding dope planes into isolated logging roads — shaped me," he joked of the north-central Florida county.

"I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay, but culturally my upbringing reflected the royal court at Versailles, with outstanding wigs, elegant discourse, and utter disregard for the seething class oppression necessary to sustain it," Wilson also posted.

"I may have attended both Harvard and Yale, but culturally I identify with the rustics who eat chocolate pudding with their hands," mocked Helen Kennedy, referring to reports that DeSantis has atrocious table manners and ate with his fingers.

Another said something similar: “I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay, but culturally my upbringing reflected a raccoon’s scavenges, where I ate pudding with my fingers and licked out the cup.”

Paul Rudnick explained that the Tampa folks he knows aren't exactly fans of DeSantis.

"I was geographically raised in New Jersey but culturally my upbringing reflected Tampa Bay where everyone calls Ron DeSantis 'that bigoted asshole who eats pudding with his fingers,'" he tweeted.

Matt Johnson cited the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," saying, 'I was geographically raised in Tampa, but culturally my upbringing reflected West Philadelphia. On the playground is where I used to play, Maxing and relaxing all cool, and shootin some b-ball outside of the school..."

Another follower of Wilson's he retweeted pulled in DeSantis' hate of transgender people.

"So… he was raised one place but identifies as something else…. Hmmmm," said Ryan Sublett

Rep. Anna V. Eskamani explained, "I was geographically raised in Orlando with a cultural perspective that allows me to easily detect BS when I see it."

"I was geographically raised on Coruscant, but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class water farmers on Tatooine—from toiling long hours under the twin suns to fighting Tusken Raiders. This made me the Force-fearing, rugged individual that I am today," joked Mark Strauss.

"Where'd you grow up?" Everytown's Max Steel asked, going straight to politics. "I was geographically raised in Plurality-of-the-Caucuses, Iowa but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada."

'Important victory' for Florida higher education as court upholds block on DeSantis censorship law

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday kept in place a preliminary injunction against Florida GOP policymakers' school censorship law in what rights advocates celebrated as "an important victory for professors, other educators, and students."

The appellate court denied a request from Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration and higher education officials to block a district judge's injunction that is currently preventing enforcement of the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act—rebranded by its supporters as the Individual Freedom Act—in the state's public colleges and universities.

DeSantis' Stop WOKE Act "limits the ways concepts related to systemic racism and sex discrimination can be discussed in teaching or conducting training in workplaces or schools," parroting a Trump administration executive order that was ultimately rescinded by President Joe Biden, the ACLU explained last year.

The plaintiffs in one of the relevant cases, Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors, are represented by the national and state ACLU along with the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and Ballard Spahr, who first filed the federal suit last August—the same day U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, issued a separate injunction against the law related to employers.

The new appeals court order upholds the injunction Walker issued in November, which began by quoting George Orwell's novel 1984. Calling the controversial law "positively dystopian," the judge wrote at the time that "the powers in charge of Florida's public university system have declared the state has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of 'freedom.'"

Leah Watson, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, said Thursday that "the court's decision to leave in place the preliminary injunction is a recognition of the serious injury posed to educators and students by the Stop WOKE Act."

"All students and educators deserve to have a free and open exchange about issues related to race in our classrooms," Watson argued, rather than censored discussions that erase "the history of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and Brown people, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals."

LDF assistant counsel Alexsis Johnson similarly stressed that "institutions of higher education in Florida should have the ability to provide a quality education, which simply cannot happen when students and educators, including Black students and educators, feel they cannot speak freely about their lived experiences, or when they feel that they may incur a politician's wrath for engaging in a fact-based discussion of our history."

The order also pertains to a challenge filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) in September.

"Professors must be able to discuss subjects like race and gender without hesitation or fear of state reprisal," FIRE said Thursday. "Any law that limits the free exchange of ideas in university classrooms should lose in both the court of law and the court of public opinion."

The Stop WOKE Act is part of a nationwide effort by Republican state lawmakers and governors—especially DeSantis, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate—to curtail what content can be shared and discussed in classrooms and workplaces.

"Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism," according to an Education Week analysis updated on Monday. "Eighteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues."

ACLU of Florida staff attorney Jerry Edwards warned Thursday that "lawmakers continue to threaten our democracy by attempting to curtail important discussions about our collective history and treatment of Black and Brown communities."

"This is an important step in preserving the truth, civil liberties, and a better future," Edwards said of the 11th Circuit's decision.

Though legal groups welcomed the order, the battle over the law is ongoing. The court will eventually rule on the merits of the case—which DeSantis' press secretary Bryan Griffin highlighted Thursday, adding, "We remain confident that the law is constitutional."

Opponents of the law are also undeterred, as Ballard Spahr litigation department chair Jason Leckerman made clear.

"The movement to restrict academic freedom and curtail the rights of marginalized communities is as pervasive as it is pernicious," he said. "We are proud of the work we have done so far with our partners, the ACLU and Legal Defense Fund, but the fight is far from over. Today, we'll take a moment to savor this result—and then we'll keep working."

This post has been updated with comment from FIRE and Gov. Ron DeSantis' press secretary.

Christian book banning activist says gay 'lifestyles' shouldn’t be 'forced down throats of families'

Leigh Wambsganss, Patriot Mobile’s Vice President of Government and Public Affairs and Executive Director of Patriot Mobile Action, the far-right wing political action committee of the Christian conservative mobile phone service provider, has spent decades in the conservative media echo chamber, and now she’s getting even more attention, from The New York Times.

Wambsganss was included in a Times article Monday on anti-LGBTQ book banning. The paper, soft-pedaling the extremism presented by Wambsganss, notes “11 school board candidates backed by Patriot Mobile Action, the political action committee formed by the cellphone company, won in four districts this year.”

“The committee’s aim is to eliminate ‘critical race theory’ and ‘L.G.B.T.Q. indoctrination’ from schools, Leigh Wambsganss, its executive director, said on Steve Bannon’s show, ‘War Room.'”

READ MORE: ‘ChristoFascism in a Nutshell’: DeSantis Mocked for Banning Nearly Half of All Math Books Claiming CRT Indoctrination

The Times does report that for extremists like Wambsganss, “Even books without sexual content can be problematic if they include L.G.B.T.Q. characters, because they are ‘sexualizing children,’ she said: ‘It is normalizing a lifestyle that is a sexual choice.'”

“’Those kinds of lifestyles,’ she added, shouldn’t ‘be forced down the throats of families who don’t agree.’”

Being LGBTQ is not a “lifestyle” nor is it a “sexual choice,” nor is having an LGBTQ character in a book “sexualizing children,” nor did The Times push back against or fact-check Wambsganss’ statements.

Wambsganss’ employer, Patriot Mobile Action, has a list of 10 “We Believe” statements, including “In supporting candidates that stand for Christian conservative values,” “Our United States Constitution was founded on Judeo Christian principles” and “Critical Race Theory and Marxist policies have no place in schools or government.”

Not a word about LGBTQ issues, people, or equality or civil rights, despite that clearly being a major focus for Patriot Mobile Action.

READ MORE: GOP Lawmaker Pushes Bill to Ban Books ‘Normalizing’ LGBTQ ‘Lifestyles’ From Schools to Not Offend Christians

“Leigh has been featured on Fox News, John Solomons ‘Just the News’ talk radio, Mark Davis 660AM, The Christian Perspective podcast, in the National Review, the Texas Values Report, a speaker at Turning Point USA and the Center for National Policy and quoted in multiple news media stories,” her bio at Patriot Mobile Action reads. “Leigh is a speaker and trainer on how to identify and defeat socialist Marxism in schools and government.”

Patriot Mobile, NBC News reported in August, gave Patriot Mobil Action $600,000 to spend on school board races in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Some parents are not happy. One, Rachel Wall, told NBC News that Patriot Mobile Action “bought four school boards, and now they’re pulling the strings.”

Wall is “the mother of a Grapevine-Colleyville student and vice president of the Texas Bipartisan Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting school board candidates who do not have partisan agendas.”

“I’m a Christian by faith,” she said, “but if I wanted my son to be in a religious school, I would pay for him to go to a private school.”

Wambsganss and Patriot Mobile Action appear to have a different idea.

In June, at an event hosted by far right wing activist group Turning Point USA, she introduced herself to the audience by saying, “I’m Leigh Wambsganss and my pronouns are bible believer, Jesus lover, gun carrier, and Momma Bear.”

Watch the video below or at this link.

How to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy during Russia’s war against Ukraine: scholar

Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

As someone who teaches Russian literature, I can’t help but process the world through the country’s novels, stories, poems and plays, even at a time when Russian cultural productions are being canceled around the world.

With the Russian army perpetrating devastating violence in Ukraine – which includes the slaughter of civilians in Bucha – the discussion of what to do with Russian literature has naturally arisen.

I’m not worried that truly valuable art can ever be canceled. Enduring works of literature are enduring, in part, because they are capacious enough to be read critically against the vicissitudes of the present.

You could make this argument about any great work of Russian literature, but as a scholar of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, I will stick with Russia’s most famous literary exports.

After World War II, German critic Theodore Adorno described the Holocaust as a profound blow to Western culture and philosophy, even going so far as to question the very ability of human beings to “live after Auschwitz.”

This idea, born of the very specific context of the Holocaust, shouldn’t be haphazardly applied to the present moment. But following Adorno’s moral lead, I wonder whether – after the brutal shelling of the city of Mariupol, after the horrors on the streets of Bucha, along with atrocities committed in Kharkiv, Mykolaev, Kyiv and many more – the indiscriminate violence ought to change how readers approach Russia’s great authors.

Confronting suffering with clear eyes

Upon learning that Russian writer Ivan Turgenev had looked away at the last minute when witnessing the execution of a man, Dostoevsky made his own position clear: “[A] human being living on the surface of the earth has no right to turn away and ignore what is happening on earth, and there are higher moral imperatives for this.”

Seeing the rubble of a theater in Mariupol, hearing of Mariupol citizens starving because of Russian airstrikes, I wonder what Dostoevsky – who specifically focused his piercing moral eye on the question of the suffering of children in his 1880 novel “The Brothers Karamazov” – would say in response to the Russian army’s bombing a theater where children were sheltering. The word “children” was spelled out on the pavement outside the theater in large type so it could be seen from the sky. There was no misunderstanding of who was there.

Ivan Karamazov, the central protagonist in “The Brothers Karamazov,” is far more focused on questions of moral accountability than Christian acceptance or forgiveness and reconciliation. In conversation, Ivan routinely brings up examples of children’s being harmed, imploring the other characters to recognize the atrocities in their midst. He is determined to seek retribution.

Surely the intentional shelling of children in Mariupol is something Dostoevsky couldn’t possibly look away from either. Could he possibly defend a vision of Russian morality while seeing innocent civilians – men, women and children – lying on the streets of Bucha?

At the same time, nor should readers look away from the unseemliness of Dostoevsky and his sense of Russian exceptionalism. These dogmatic ideas about Russian greatness and Russia’s messianic mission are connected to the broader ideology that has fueled Russia’s past colonial mission, and current Russian foreign politics on violent display in Ukraine.

Yet Dostoevsky was also a great humanist thinker who tied this vision of Russian greatness to Russian suffering and faith. Seeing the spiritual value of human suffering was perhaps a natural outcome for a man sent to a labor camp in Siberia for five years for simply participating in a glorified socialist book club. Dostoevsky grew out of his suffering, but, arguably, not to a place where he could accept state-sponsored terror.

Would an author who, in his 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment,” explains in excruciating detail the toll of murder on the murderer – who explains that when someone takes a life, they kill part of themselves – possibly accept Putin’s vision of Russia? Warts and all, would Russia’s greatest metaphysical rebel have recoiled and rebelled against Russian violence in Ukraine?

I hope that he would, as many contemporary Russian writers have. But the dogmas of the Kremlin are pervasive, and many Russians accept them. Many Russians look away.

Tolstoy’s path to pacifism

No writer captures warfare in Russia more poignantly than Tolstoy, a former soldier turned Russia’s most famous pacifist. In his last work, “Hadji Murat,” which scrutinizes Russia’s colonial exploits in North Caucasus, Tolstoy showed how senseless Russian violence toward a Chechen village caused instant hatred of Russians.

Tolstoy’s greatest work about Russian warfare, “War and Peace,” is a novel that Russians have traditionally read during great wars, including World War II. In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy contends that the morale of the Russian military is the key to victory. The battles most likely to succeed are defensive ones, in which soldiers understand why they are fighting and what they are fighting to protect: their home.

Even then, he’s able to convey the harrowing experiences of young Russian soldiers coming into direct confrontation with the instruments of death and destruction on the battlefield. They disappear into the crowd of their battalion, but even a single loss is devastating for the families awaiting their safe return.

After publishing “War and Peace,” Tolstoy publicly denounced many Russian military campaigns. The last part of his 1878 novel “Anna Karenina” originally wasn’t published because it criticized Russia’s actions in the Russo-Turkish war. Tolstoy’s alter ego in that novel, Konstantin Levin, calls the Russian intervention in the war “murder” and thinks it is inappropriate that Russian people are dragged into it.

“The people sacrifice and are always prepared to sacrifice themselves for their soul, not for murder,” he says.

In 1904, Tolstoy penned a public letter denouncing the Russo-Japanese War, which has sometimes been compared with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Again war,” he wrote. “Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for; again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men.” One can almost hear him shouting “Bethink Yourselves,” the title of that essay, to his countrymen now.

In one of his most famous pacifist writings, 1900’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Tolstoy presciently diagnosed the problem of today’s Russia.

“The misery of nations is caused not by particular persons, but by the particular order of Society under which the people are so bound up together that they find themselves all in the power of a few men, or more often in the power of one single man: a man so perverted by his unnatural position as arbiter of the fate and lives of millions, that he is always in an unhealthy state, and always suffers more or less from a mania of self-aggrandizement.”

The importance of action

If Dostoevsky would insist that one not look away, it is fair to say that Tolstoy would contend that people must act upon what they see.

During the Russian famine of 1891 to 1892, he started soup kitchens to help his countrymen who were starving and had been abandoned by the Russian government. He worked to help Russian soldiers evade the draft in the Russian empire, visiting and supporting jailed soldiers who did not wish to fight. In 1899 he sold his last novel, “Resurrection,” to help a Russian Christian sect, the Doukhobors, emigrate to Canada so they would not need to fight in the Russian army.

These writers have little to do with the current war. They cannot expunge or mitigate the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. But they’re embedded on some level within the Russian cultural fabric, and how their books are still read matters. Not because Russian literature can explain any of what is happening, because it cannot. But because, as Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan wrote in March 2022, Russia’s war in Ukraine marked a defeat for Russia’s great humanist tradition.

As this culture copes with a Russian army that has indiscriminately bombed and massacred Ukrainians, Russia’s great authors can and should be read critically, with one urgent question in mind: how to stop the violence. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny noted during his March 2022 trial that Tolstoy urged his countrymen to fight both despotism and war because one enables the other.

And Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze cited “War and Peace” in a February 2022 entry in her graphic diary.

“I’ve read your f—ing literature,” she wrote. “But looks like Putin did not, and you have forgotten.”The Conversation

Ani Kokobobo, Associate Professor of Russian Literature, University of Kansas

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

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 Timesdescribed 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 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 fromDeath 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

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.

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