Commentary

Two layers of context needed to understand Tyre Nichols' murder

There are two layers of context – one local, one national – that everyone must first understand before they understand Tyre Nichols’ murder.

These layers of context should demonstrate, again, that white power was the determining force behind the beating death of the 29-year-old Black man. Yes, despite that the police officers who beat him to death were Black.

Context Layer No. 1: Nichols was the fourth person to die at the hands of Memphis police over the last five weeks. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, those killings are under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “By comparison to the attention and action on the case of Nichols’ death, authorities have released little information.”

READ MORE: 'It's a mistake' to believe murder case against cops who beat Tyre Nichols to death 'will be easy': legal expert

The Rev. Earle Fisher, a prominent figure in local Black politics, said: “As much as they want to try to isolate this, we have been saying this is part and parcel of the larger system and structure of policing. When the smoke clears, and when the cameras leave, and when the national figures leave, [the Memphis police department] will go right back to business as usual.”

There’s more here than one man’s death.

Context Layer No. 2: Police around the country killed more Americans in 2022 than any year since 2013. At least 1,176 people died at the hands of law enforcement last year, according to Mapping Police Violence. That number may be an undercount, Bloomberg Newssaid, “as the organization continues to compile data, which it does regularly for all of the years it tracks.”

Ninety-six percent of the deaths were from police officers shooting people. Of the total number, the victims were disproportionately Black (nearly a quarter). The Black population is only 13 percent. “The majority of these killings began with a mental health call, routine traffic stop, a non-violent offense or disturbance or a situation where there was no crime alleged,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, founder of Mapping Police Violence.

READ MORE: Tyre Nichols' family speaks out as the disturbing footage of his deadly beating leaves the nation reeling

There’s more here than one man’s death.

There’s more here than three other people’s deaths.

Their deaths are a microcosm of a macrocosmic problem. If we do not understand the larger habit in American police departments of shooting and killing Black people, we can’t understand Tyre Nichols’ death.

Easy disposal

This context is what the defenders of the white-power status quo would rather everyone did not understand, because if they did understand the existence of “an institutionalized police culture that is anti-Black,” they might come to agree with the critics of the white-power status quo.

Everyone might see that what happened to Nichols’ happens all the time on account of anti-Black prejudice being enshrined in police institutions.

If something evil is institutionalized, then more needs doing than holding accountable a few cops here and there. The whole thing needs to be uprooted and replanted, which is what defenders of the white-power status quo do not want to do, because things as they stand are working just fine.

As if proving my point, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis hurried over to CNN to say, look, five Black cops killed a Black man so obviously institutionalized anti-Black bias can’t possibly explain why the Memphis police department and cops around the country keep killing Black people, yanno, like more than any time in nearly a decade. "It takes off the table that issues and problems in law enforcement (are) about race," she said.

"It is about human dignity and integrity, accountability and the duty to protect our community. And as this video will show you, it doesn’t matter who is wearing the uniform, that we all have that same responsibility. So it takes race off the table. But it does indicate to me that bias might be a factor also in the manner in which we engage the community."

So bias may be the problem, just not anti-Black bias, because Black cops killed a Black man? You know, it’s possible they were not just terrible cops, but also keenly aware of a white-power status quo that pressures Black cops to go hard on Black people to prove they aren’t anti-white power.

At the top, I said they killed Nichols despite being Black.

It could be because they’re Black.

Anyway, Davis seemed to prove my point again when she quickly fired the cops who killed Nichols. Same for their swift indictment on second-degree murder changes by Shelby County’s District Attorney General Steve Mulroy.

Nothing says Black police officers are disposable to the white-power status quo like the white-power status quo disposing of Black police officers.

READ MORE: 'Supervised by a single Black woman': Jason Whitlock attempts to blame Memphis police chief for Tyre Nichols' death

How the anti-abortion movement learned to stop worrying and love punishing women for having sex

Anti-abortionists have always had a weak spot. It was enveiled as long as Roe was in place. Now that Roe is gone, that vulnerability is coming into view. It’s pretty much what you’d expect it to be. Yes, I’m talking about sex.

Anti-abortionism is, at its root, about making the beast with two backs. It’s not that sex is bad. If you’re a man, it might be bad, or good. It depends on your age, your rank in society, your money and influence, and so on. It is not about morality, since, as a man, morality is mostly what you say it is.

It’s not that sex is bad for women. That depends, too. If it’s inside iron gripped and aggressively enforced social boundaries, it's probably good, “morally” speaking. But it’s probably bad, sexually speaking, on account of it being inside iron gripped and aggressively enforced social boundaries.

READ MORE: South Dakota AG and governor threaten felony charges for pharmacists prescribing abortion pills

Again, it depends.

What’s certain is that anti-abortionism is, at its root, not about “the sanctity of life,” “fetal personhood” or some made-up thing. It is what conservative protestant white men have always said it was: a means of controlling women, a quasi-legal set of bylaws that punish disobedience of conservative protestant white men but reward submission to them.

In other words, a way to monopolize sex.

Men setting the terms

READ MORE: Supreme Court failed to reveal its 'longstanding financial ties' with expert who reviewed Dobbs leak probe: report

That’s the root of it, but that’s a terrible, just awful, basis for a political movement, because, yanno, who’s going to organize, fundraise and mobilize around the hoary conviction that a woman’s place is in the home, that a woman’s exclusive role is as caregiver, for children and men, and that sexual access to a woman is predicated solely on her husband’s authority over her?

Yeah, that’s going nowhere fast.

So the anti-abortionists got creative. They didn’t stop believing what their lineage had believed for decades. They just stopped talking about, mostly, what their lineage had believed for decades. That wasn’t enough, though.

To truly broaden the appeal to a wider audience of something that’s fundamentally unappealing to a wider audience, the anti-abortionists had to make some shit up that sounded like it had nothing to do with maintaining the dominance of old white protestant patriarchy, but was, in spirit and goal, about white protestant men maintaining the old dominance.

It couldn’t be concrete. That would give the game away. But it couldn’t be so abstract as to alienate or lose the attention of conservative white protestants who’d normally take offense at the thought of a woman enjoying sex with a man who was not her husband, or just enjoying sex.

It’s hard to say.

It had to be concrete enough to mobilize true believers but abstract enough to 1) avoid driving away potential collaborators and 2) inspire them to organize, fundraise and mobilize for this made up thing that may be, and was, in reality, about white men setting the terms of life for women.

Revealing the truth

Historically, however, the protestants had no model.

For them, fetuses had no place in the natural order of things, because a fetus wasn’t a person until it kicked its mother in the womb. After that, its place, as for everyone, was in the hierarchies of power established by a biblical God in which He ruled over Mankind, men ruled over women, parents ruled over children, and white people ruled over everyone else.

For the protestants of old, babies were, first of all, women’s work. Second of all, they were not as important in the grand scheme as mothers were. My own mom, an old-time fundamentalist, supported abortion, when I was young, on those very grounds. Children, born and unborn, were to be subordinate. If a pregnancy ended prematurely, God would save their souls.

So the protestants turned to the Catholics, who had had a working model for centuries for what they needed. While “life” was a meaningless word to protestants trained to believe in the proper place for children, it was nevertheless a useful term for achieving their anti-abortionist objectives.

“Sanctity of life” – oh, that was even better! The phrase rang with religious overtones. “Fetal personhood,” however, tops them all! It would later on resonate with the sounds of criminal law and constitutional rights.

The anti-abortionists could grow their movement against sex and women’s individual liberty without giving away their real motives. Yes, some idiot like Todd Atkin, a one-time senate candidate, would sometimes provide a glimpse into the real anti-abortionist intentions with talk of “legitimate rape” (read: “rape” applies to criminals only; husbands can’t be rapists).

But otherwise, the making-shit-up strategy went a long way, in fact all the way to the Supreme Court, where a supermajority of rightwing justices decided to pretend to believe the anti-abortionists’ made-up shit.

Everything was soooper after Roe fell. Women would soon return home. Eden would be restored. As long as the anti-abortionists true intentions remained hidden, and as long as rightwing lawmakers didn’t overreach.

Exposure and overreach, however, come with success.

Eventually, the movement cracks, revealing the truth.

Back to the ur-believers

According toVice News, lawmakers in Arkansas and Oklahoma have already introduced legislation that, instead of punishing abortion providers, as has been the case for decades, would punish abortion seekers, namely, women.

It’s a growing trend. There’s probably no stopping it. Why?

Because new technologies (mifepristone, the drug that prevents embryos from attaching to the womb), a patchwork of state laws (some states have decimated access while others have increased it), and globalization (Indian drugmakers don’t care about American abortion laws) have created new and greater incentives to target women themselves, not their doctors.

That creates a new set of determining factors for the anti-abortion movement, which, when seen in their proper light, will erode, though perhaps not stop, the anti-abortion movement down to its ur-believers.

Take away all the carnival barking over “the sanctity of life” and “fetal personhood” and who’s going to fight for the hoary conviction that a woman’s place is in the home, that as caregiver is her role, and that sexual access to her is predicated solely on her husband’s authority over her.

Yeah, that’s going nowhere fast.

Crimes are punishable

The first factor is that pro-abortionists have for years accused anti-abortionists of the desire to punish women for having abortions (ie, for enjoying sex outside marriage). That’s the logical outcome of the current push for “fetal personhood” in some anti-abortionist states. If a fetus is a person, abortion is murder. Murder is a crime. Crimes are punishable.

The second is that this momentum toward “fetal personhood” is itself putting the lie to decades of anti-abortionist propaganda. For years, they said no, no. We don’t want to punish women. We want to protect “the sanctity of life,” or um, “civil rights,” yeah! But that won’t work when it’s more apparent that the goal is criminalizing “illegitimate” pregnancy.

The third is that some anti-abortionists have stopped pretending. Suddenly, the “sanctity of life” isn’t as important as sending the message that “actions have consequences.” Here, the “consequences” means an unwanted child. If that’s the consequence, the “actions” would be what the anti-abortionists have said was never their focus. They said it was “the life of the child.”

Yeah, no.

What you always expected

It was sex all along. Specifically, women having it outside the iron gripped and aggressively enforced social boundaries that were created for the benefit of the white protestant patriarchy. If women won’t have sex with conservative white protestant men, well, they won’t have sex at all.

Cracks are showing.

The truth is revealed.

This is the weak spot that the anti-abortionists have always had. As I said, it was enveiled as long as Roe was around. With Roe gone, that soft spot is coming into view. It’s pretty much what you had always expected it to be.

But only now is the movement’s momentum betraying it.

READ MORE: Are evangelicals distancing from Trump?

How American insurrectionists crossed a rubicon of history on January 6th

Karen Greenberg: Gallows Humor in Washington and Brazil

Just in case you think that, since January 6, 2021, the trials and tribulations of the American democratic system have been unique or even (to use an all-American word) exceptional, think again. In a recent New York Times column, Max Fisher focused on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s remarkable announcement of her decision to vacate her post well before the next election. (“I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility — the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”) There, the transition proved remarkably straightforward and swift, her party voting in a new prime minister almost instantly. As Fisher points out, while Ardern’s comments were out of the ordinary, among parliamentary democracies globally, this was not otherwise an atypical event. The most stable democracies have, in fact, proved to be parliamentary ones of the sort Ardern has led for the last five-and-a-half years, “where executive power is generated by legislative majorities and depends on such majorities for survival.”

On the other hand, presidential democracies of the American sort have had a far more daunting tendency to collapse in coups or other horrors, especially during the transition period between presidencies. Fisher adds, “Donald J. Trump’s efforts to hold onto power after losing the 2020 presidential election may have been shocking and unprecedented for the United States, but they were well in line with the sorts of crises that play out in presidential systems worldwide.”

As if to make that point all too graphically, the world recently watched Brazilians play out their very own version of January 6th, once again in front of the cameras. In both cases, the shaky changeovers were unnervingly insurrectionary in nature, but as TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, author of Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump, suggests today, each of those events had its distinct qualities and striking differences.

And of the two, the American version may have come even closer than the Brazilian one to collapsing a system of government as we know it. (Thank you, Donald!) Given the extremity of the Trumpublicans who only recently (and barely) took over the House of Representatives, don’t for a second think we’re done with this yet. If you don’t believe me, just ask George Santos or Marjorie Taylor Greene about the future that awaits us and, while you’re at it, let Greenberg explain what still remains unnervingly — I just can’t help using the word — exceptional about our version of a coup attempt. Tom

The Real Failure of January 6th: How America's Insurrectionists Crossed the Rubicon of History

Americans tuning into the television news on January 8th eyed a disturbingly recognizable scene. In an “eerily familiar” moment of “déjà vu,” just two years and two days after the January 6th Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C., a mob of thousands stormed government buildings in the capital city of another country — Brazil. In Brasilia, what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ominously labelled “the first major international imitation of our Capitol riot” seemed to be taking place.

As the optics suggested, there were parallels indeed, underscoring a previously underappreciated fragility in our democratic framework: the period of transition between presidencies.

Wreaking Havoc

Those January 8th rioters in Brazil were protesting the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, the politician Barack Obama once referred to as “my man.”

Like President Trump, Lula’s predecessor, rightwing autocrat Jair Bolsonaro, had been voted out of office by a slim margin. Deemed “the Trump of the tropics,” he had followed the former U.S. president’s lead in seeding doubt as to election integrity in the months leading up to the vote. Like Trump, he also predicted election fraud and spread stories about rigged voting machines. Small wonder given his team’s ties to former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon who had consulted with the Bolsonaro team and insisted that Brazil’s election, too, would be stolen, while afterwards praising the rioters as “Brazilian freedom fighters.”

The fervent Bolsonaro supporters, like their American counterparts, wreaked havoc, destroying furniture at their Supreme Court, works of art in the presidential palace, and generally leaving the insides of the buildings they stormed, including that country’s congress, “in ruins.”

Far more overtly than in the United States, many in the security forces in Brazil seemed to sympathize with the protesters. A Brookings report found that “while the attack unfolded, Bolsonaro supporters met surprisingly limited resistance. Police officers… were caught on camera chatting with protesters and buying coconut water.” It added that “several military officials reportedly participated in the vandalism” and called the apparent “total complacency of local government and public security officials” alarming.

Still, if you peek beneath the surface, you’ll find some important differences.

As a start, Lula had already been installed as president when that presidential palace was stormed — and he wasn’t there — while Joe Biden was still 15 days away from his inauguration when the January 6th uprising occurred.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of that. The riots in Brasilia did not, in fact, disrupt the actual transfer of power. Although there had been protests in the run-up to Lula’s installation as president, including significant numbers of Bolsonaro supporters who refused to accept the election results and camped in protest tent cities for weeks in the capital, Lula, unlike Joe Biden, accepted the presidency without disruption. In addition, unlike Trump, Bolsonaro had actually authorized the transfer of power to the new president. He then headed for Florida before Lula’s inauguration, leaving his supporters without a leader in their ongoing protests. “We either live in a democracy or we don’t,” he told them. “And no one wants an adventure.”

Donald Trump, of course, did anything but leave town. He had already tweeted to his followers, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th… Be there, will be wild!” On that day, he then inspired the attack by personally urging an armed mob assembled at Washington’s Ellipse Park to march on the Capitol and disrupt the vote meant to certify the election results. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he told them. “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

Nearly two years later, the congressional January 6th report would, as the legal blog Just Security summarized it, conclude: “Without that speech, without that mob… the assault on the Capitol would not have happened.” Moreover, although the Brazilian rioters broke windows, destroyed computers, and ransacked art, and although reports suggested weapons had been stolen from the presidential palace during the attack, there were, as the Associated Press noted, “no immediate reports of deaths or injuries” amid the rampage. Quite the contrary, there was some degree of camaraderie between many of the police and the rioters.

In Washington, on the other hand, seven deaths would be associated with the assault on the Capitol, 140 police officers would be wounded, and several individuals were hospitalized. Meanwhile, the insurrectionists, including significant numbers of militia members and both retired and still serving U.S. military personnel, quite literally demanded the heads of politicians like Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. (Some of the protesters even constructed a gallows in front of the Capitol.) In Brazil there were no similar threats to elected officials and the buildings under attack were largely empty.

Calling in the Troops — or Not

The attempts to quell the attacks in both countries differed as well. At the outset, given the levels of violence, sufficient law enforcement was lacking in both countries, though in different ways, as the insurrectionists in each instance passed through police barricades with surprising ease. Stephen Sund, the chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, reported his horror at witnessing a “mob like nothing I have seen in my law enforcement career.” He watched his officers being “hit with pipes, wooden sticks, flag poles, and sprayed with mace and bear spray, all while trying to defend themselves against projectiles being directed at them.” Meanwhile, two pipe bombs were found in the vicinity of the riot, one each near Democratic National Committee headquarters and Republican National Committee headquarters.

But within a short period of time, a major difference emerged. In Brazil, the leader was absent. Bolsonaro was out of touch and, though surprisingly few police were initially on the scene and those that were seemed sympathetic to the former president’s rioting defenders, when President Lula called for backup from his security forces, they arrived in significant numbers.

In the United States, President Trump didn’t go anywhere. He simply continued — as he does to this day — to contest the election results, while watching developments on TV. That was true despite calls for help from longtime allies in Congress, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who bitterly told the president that his followers were “trying to f—— kill” him. Trump, in fact, waited hours before telling the insurrectionists to go home, adding, “We love you. You’re very special.”

Chief Sund called for backup immediately but was rebuffed. The Capitol police, he later explained in a letter to Congressional leaders, “does not have the manpower, the training, or the capabilities to handle an armed insurrection involving thousands of individuals bent on violence and destruction at all costs.” He reached out and received help from the Secret Service, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, and others. But what he needed was the National Guard.

In fact, Sund had requested that the Guard be put on standby in the lead-up to January 6th. In a later interview, he told reporter Aaron Davis that he also had identified the need for the National Guard on January 3rd. On the day of the attack, he reported, he literally begged for them, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

According to the rules, the chief does not have the power to request the Guard without the approval first of the Capitol Police Board, which took more than an hour to obtain, and then of the Pentagon whose first responders recommended against approving the request, objecting to the “visual of the National Guard standing in a line with the Capitol in the background.” Chief Sund continued to plead for help and eventually an embattled Vice President Mike Pence ordered the D.C. National Guard dispatched to the capitol. Once they arrived — at approximately 5:30 p.m. — it still took two hours to fully quell the violence.

The Aftermath

In Brazil, an aggressive strategy to identify leaders and followers began immediately. Authorities detained 1,500 people within 24 hours of the attack while individuals who had aided the protest from inside were quickly suspended and placed under further investigation. Higher-ups who might have abetted the riots were removed as well. Brasilia Governor Ibaneis Rocha, a Bolsonaro ally, was suspended and his chief of security and the head of the police were arrested. Lula has pledged to continue to root out Bolsonaro allies from his security forces, while the former president is reportedly under investigation for any role he might have had in the uprising.

Some, including Tyler McBrien at the Lawfare blog, have ascribed the swiftness and efficiency of the response in Brazil to lessons learned from January 6th. The differences are certainly telling. In the United States, it took six weeks after the insurrection for the Capitol Police to reportedly suspend six officers (with pay) for their actions that day, while putting 29 more under investigation. As for the rioters, the Department of Justice has focused on those who breached the Capitol’s perimeter and the building itself, many of them armed with “deadly or dangerous weapons,” ranging from baseball bats to guns. Two years later, at least 972 individuals have been charged with crimes related to the attack. Of those, 495 have reportedly pled guilty and six, including founder of the Oath Keepers militia Stewart Rhodes, have been found guilty of seditious conspiracy. At least 378 have received sentences and at least 55% received prison time. The longest sentence meted out so far is 10 years, though none of those convicted of seditious conspiracy has yet been sentenced.

As for the higher-ups who failed to defend the capitol adequately, the push for accountability has been meager at best. Sund resigned, as did at least two members of the Capitol Board. Other than that, there has been little to no responsibility taken for what happened.

Looking to identify the leaders of the insurrection and not just its foot soldiers, the Senate convened a select committee to investigate the events surrounding January 6th. Almost seven months later, on June 30, 2021, they went to work, hearing from more than 1,000 witnesses, and on December 22, 2022 (just before the Republicans were to take back the House of Representatives), finally issuing a report that focused primarily on the misdeeds of Donald Trump. In addition to calling for charges against him, the committee recommended criminal charges against his election lawyer John Eastman. But while Attorney General Merrick Garland has promised “justice without fear or favor,” no indictments have yet been announced for either the former president or any of his chief allies.

While such steps towards accountability remain crucial, another issue warrants attention as well: the period of the presidential transition, between election day on the second Tuesday in November and inauguration day, January 20th. That 10-week period is, we now know, fraught with possibilities for the abuse of power and the undermining of democratic norms.

And this is not the first time that the potential for disruption — or even disaster — has come to the fore.

Presidential Transitions, Then and Now

As it happens, the 2020 election was hardly the first time the results of a presidential contest had been in question. As early as 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr squared off for six days and 35 ballots in the House of Representatives before Jefferson was finally declared president. Or consider the “corrupt bargain” election of 1824 in which Andrew Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams in a stand-off decided in the House after neither of them won a majority of the electoral college votes. Or Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 after which, by inauguration day in 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union. And then there was the Samuel Tilden-Rutherford B. Hayes election of 1876 in which Tilden was one vote shy of a majority in the electoral college. That led to a transition period of intense fighting over voting violations. After the passage of the Electoral Commission Act, Republican Hayes, caving in on the post-Civil War Reconstruction program, garnered additional support from Democrats and became president. More recently, of course, there was the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore in which a Florida recount delayed the results for several weeks.

During any presidential transition period, much has to happen. Money has to be transferred to the incoming team for equipment; offices need to be set up; and perhaps most important, nominations to top positions need to be made. The Presidential Transition Act of 1963, which governs “the orderly transfer of the executive power,” noted that “any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people.”

The 9/11 Commission underscored the dangers of a poorly executed transfer of power, suggesting that failure to be prepared for the attacks of September 11, 2001, was connected, at least in part, to a truncated transition period. By the time the Supreme Court finally intervened and stopped the Florida recount, making George Bush president on December 12th, that period had been reduced to 39 days, half the normal time, with damaging repercussions. The commission concluded that the delay had “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees,” thereby hindering National Security Council efforts to prevent those terrorists from attacking the following September.

In response to such concerns, in 2010 and again in 2019, Congress lengthened the time allotted for the transfer of information between administrations and put earlier deadlines on top government appointments. The fraught transition period after Joe Biden’s election, however, provided clear evidence that more was needed. On December 22, 2022, Congress passed the Presidential Transition Improvement Act which deals specifically, among other things, with the problems created by a contested election.

But no legislation is likely to deal adequately with what Donald Trump and his cadre of election deniers (and insurrectionists) tried to do on January 6, 2021. Whether or not that signals a new and more perilous future for the American system remains to be seen. One thing is clear: on that day, the United States failed to transfer power peacefully. While the new president was indeed finally certified, it was on a transition day of historically lethal violence.

Yes, had it not happened, it’s hard to imagine that events in Brazil would have occurred the way they did — such is the global effect of social media — but the Brazil comparison, for all its obvious similarities (and even the element of imitation), falls short. After all, despite those violent protestors, Brazil’s actual transfer of power did indeed occur peacefully in a way that this country’s didn’t — a reality that no one should sweep under the rug.

The United States came within a hair’s breadth of a successful coup attempt and the actual blocking of the lawful election of a president. Despite the active prosecutions of that day’s insurrectionists, despite whatever charges might sooner or later be leveled at Donald Trump and his accomplices, and despite legislation aimed at plugging the loopholes that led to the crisis, it’s important never to forget that a daunting historical threshold has been crossed, one we can’t afford to witness again.

What personality types do best in hybrid work?

Many employees excel in hybrid or even fully remote work settings, outperforming expectations to deliver outstanding results. Others in the same roles struggle to work effectively outside the office, even if they have the same home office arrangements and are deemed equally talented by their managers.

Such seemingly random differences frustrate and confuse managers. No wonder that Microsoft research found that “85% of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.”

Having researched effective hybrid work at 21 organizations that I helped figure out their hybrid work arrangements, I can confidently state that employee personality differences represent one important driver of these seemingly random performance differences. By matching hybrid work arrangements to the relevant personality traits of their workers, organizations can optimize employee performance, resulting in a win-win for everyone involved.

READ MORE: Why union workers are a front-line defense to protect Social Security

In assessing personality, it’s vital to use the right measurements. Avoid using tests that research shows poorly predict job performance despite their popularity, such as DiSC and MBTI. The Big Five personality test offers a much better option. It consists of five personality dimensions: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience, and Emotional Stability (also called Neuroticism). Unlike DiSC and MBTI, the Big Five test has shown a high degree of predictive validity, test-retest reliability, convergence with self-ratings and ratings by others, and predicting job performance.

I had my clients administer the Big Five to their employees at the start of consulting engagements, along with a survey focusing on hybrid work. Then, as we implemented changes to hybrid and remote work arrangements, we assessed changes in employee performance, as evaluated by managers.

We found that the Big Five factor of Conscientiousness - characterized by qualities such as being organized, reliable, self-disciplined, taking ownership of tasks, and showing initiative in problem-solving - strongly correlates with higher performance during the time when employees work remotely. Certainly, those with higher Conscientiousness also performed better in the office. However, the difference in performance between high-Conscientiousness and low-Conscientiousness employees was much bigger when staff members worked from home, with a high statistical significance (p < .01).

Those high on Extraversion perform less well when working from home, with a substantial statistical significance (p < .01), compared to working in the office. That’s not surprising: Extraversion is the personality trait describing people who are more sociable, outgoing, talkative, assertive, and energized by others. Those high on Extraversion tend to experience more loneliness and social isolation when working from home, undermining their performance.

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The factor of Emotional Stability also predicted higher performance outside the office with a statistical significance, though to a lesser extent than Conscientiousness or Extraversion (p < .05). Those high on Emotional Stability are calmer, more even-tempered, resilient in the face of stress, and less prone to negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, and depression. The time spent working remotely requires staff to do greater emotional self-regulation with less emotional support available from managers and team mates.

People higher in Openness to Experience performed better during the time they worked remotely, although the magnitude of difference was lower than for Conscientiousness or Extraversion (p < .05) - comparable to Emotional Stability. Openness to Experience refers to a person's willingness to consider new ideas and experiences, be open-minded, creative, curious, and imaginative. Those with a lower Openness to Experience score tend to have more difficulty adjusting to hybrid work modalities, and their performance suffers.

We haven’t found any statistically significant differences in performance between in-office and remote settings for the last factor, Agreeableness. This personality trait refers to a person's tendency to be cooperative and get along with others, with a focus on compromise and reluctance to engage in competition and conflict.

Managers don’t have to be frustrated by the seemingly random variation in productivity between the members of their hybrid teams. By assessing the personality traits of their team members and adapting hybrid work arrangements to fit their needs, they can optimize team member performance in a win-win for all.

READ MORE: Chris Hedges: How economic dislocation and the plague of social isolation ruptured our communities

Why this small city in Ukraine is a focal point in the war

Since the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive started gaining momentum in September 2022, the Russian army has largely been on the defensive. Russian drone and missile strikes continue to target Ukraine’s major cities, but its military forces have retreated from attempts to take Kherson, Kharkiv, or any other major Ukrainian settlement. Strong defensive fortifications built by Russian and Ukrainian armed forces across the frontline have stalled major advances as troops from both sides have mostly opted to dig in.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

But the Kremlin has directed thousands of its forces since August 2022 to attack the small Donetsk city of Bakhmut. The war has in several ways been an “old-fashioned conflict, based on attrition, on devastating artillery strikes, and on dug-in positions reminiscent of the trenches of World War I,” as opposed to some of the quick offensives and counteroffensives that were seen during the first part of the current conflict.

According to a January 10, 2023, article in PBS NewsHour, the Ukrainian-backed governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, “estimated more than two months ago that 90 percent of Bakhmut’s prewar population of over 70,000 had fled since Moscow focused on seizing the entire Donbas.” The fighting and destruction have only intensified since Kyrylenko made this statement, but the Kremlin appears intent on capturing Bakhmut for propaganda purposes and to tout a tactical victory after months of retreats. According to a Ukrainian analyst, “Bakhmut is mostly a political goal for Russia—it’s being done mostly for the sake of propaganda reasons to show everybody that after so many months and utter failures in Kherson and Kharkiv, it still can capture a more or less significant city,” stated a TRT World article.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought to prove that Ukrainian forces still have the capability to hold back the Russian advance, and made a surprise visit to Bakhmut on December 20. On January 9, 2023, Zelenskyy declared that the defense of the nearby city of Soledar had led to the gain of “additional time and power for Ukraine.” But the Ukrainian armed forces have had to divert “significant reinforcements” to the battle from other parts of the country since January, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defense. And despite heavy Russian casualties, high Ukrainian casualties have also become a concern for Kyiv.

Western and Ukrainian officials have often downplayed the strategic importance of Bakhmut, depicting it as a sinkhole for Russian forces that may result in a “Pyrrhic victory.” Nonetheless, the phrase “hold Bakhmut” has become a Ukrainian rallying cry, and Zelenskyy’s visit demonstrated the growing symbolic importance of controlling the city.

Bakhmut, however, does possess some strategic value. Few major settlements exist to its west until the Dnieper River, and the flatter and open terrain would make Ukrainian attempts to reinforce from this direction vulnerable to Russian surveillance and firepower. Ukraine also has relatively poor road infrastructure, and Bakhmut serves as a critical juncture of transport and communication lines for Ukrainian forces in the region, including strategic supply lines to the Ukrainian-controlled settlements of Siversk, Lyman, Slovyansk, and Kramatorsk.

For Russia, seizing Bakhmut would allow it to disrupt these supply lines, as well as take pressure off the battle over Russia-controlled Kremmina, which Ukrainian forces have been fighting to recover. Bakhmut is therefore key to Russian attempts to consolidate and stabilize the Donbas, where Russia has fought since 2014 and initially made gains in 2022, before the Ukrainian counteroffensive in September.

Taking or destroying key industrial centers in the Donbas region will also reduce Ukraine’s industrial output, leading to its economy suffering further.

Bakhmut stands out as the only major area where Russian forces are on the offensive, but the frontline has been relatively stable up until recently. Yet throughout January 2023, Russian forces have moved to the city’s flank and made increasing gains in the nearby town of Soledar. After weeks of fighting, the Kremlin stated that Soledar had been captured on January 13, this was later confirmed by the Institute for the Study of War and Ukrainian armed forces.

Russian forces have enjoyed an advantage over Ukrainian forces in artillery numbers, and an early transition to a wartime economy by the Kremlin has further helped sustain months of relentless artillery strikes by it. Nonetheless, Russia has turned to countries like North Korea in recent months to obtain more artillery, and its artillery fire has decreased in recent days, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.

But Ukraine’s more limited artillery capabilities have also recently been threatened. Despite pleas for more 155-millimeter artillery rounds, Western manufacturers have struggled to supply an adequate quantity and ramp up production. This has forced the U.S. to ask South Korea for artillery and Washington also secured hundreds of thousands of 155mm artillery shells for Ukraine from its stockpiles in Israel. Meanwhile, according to U.S. defense officials, “A third of the roughly 350 Western-made howitzers donated to Kyiv are out of action at any given time.”

Western countries have now been focusing on delivering more advanced weapons to Ukraine, such as missile defense systems, tanks, and armored vehicles. Recent pledges by the UK and Canada to supply Ukraine with heavy vehicles (as well as pressure on Germany and the U.S. to do so as well) will no doubt help Ukrainian forces on the frontline. But with Russia currently dictating where the fiercest fighting will take place, Bakhmut’s vulnerability to artillery has made holding it a significant challenge.

Local militia groups and the Russian military have naturally played essential roles in the ongoing battle for Bakhmut and its surrounding regions. But perhaps most notable is that much of Russia’s recent progress has been made by the Russian private military company, Wagner.

Wagner has operated in Ukraine since 2014 and has expanded its reach to countries across Africa and the Middle East, while the company’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been keen to demonstrate his private army can accomplish major military objectives. Additionally, the deaths of Wagner mercenaries are not counted as official Russian casualties, making the costly effort to take Bakhmut easier for the Russian public to stomach. In early January 2023, the first Wagner fighters, who were “secretly pardoned convicts” recruited by the company returned home after completing their contracts, causing controversy in Russia and highlighting the role of the non-state actor in the conflict.

Western and Ukrainian observers believe that Wagner troops have suffered casualties in the thousands. Prigozhin, meanwhile, stated on a telegram channel in November 2022 that “Our goal is not Bakhmut… [itself] but the destruction of the Ukrainian army and the reduction of its combat potential, which has an extremely positive effect on other areas, which is why this operation was dubbed the ‘Bakhmut meat grinder.’”

It is also suspected that Prigozhin aims to seize the salt and gypsum mines in the region, similar to other Wagner efforts to gain access to resources across conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.

The outsized role of Wagner in the battle, as well as Prigozhin’s growing profile in Russia, has led to significant tension between the oligarch and the Russian military. After the capture of Soledar, Prigozhin claimed this was solely due to Wagner, while the Russian Defense Ministry claimed a few days later that victory was thanks to the Russian armed forces without mentioning the Wagner mercenaries.

The dispute between the Russian military and Wagner has come amid a leadership shakeup among the top brass of the Russian military. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, replaced Sergei Surovikin as the Ukraine campaign’s overall commander on January 11. The change indicates the Kremlin’s frustration with the fledgling promises of the Russian armed forces. Nonetheless, the slow success of Russian artillery strikes in Soledar combined with Wagner troops shows that the two can work together.

But Bakhmut, so far, remains elusive for the Kremlin. Whichever side controls the city will have an advantage over any potential offensives later in 2023 and will have more say over where the next major battles take place. While Ukraine’s armed forces remain united under a more centralized command, the Kremlin will have to be careful of the growing tension between its armed forces, local militia groups, and private military companies.

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. His book, Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West With an Economy Smaller Than Texas’, was published in December 2022.

Americans want government-run healthcare. Where is it?

Here’s one of many indicators about how broken the United States health care system is: Guns seem to be easier and cheaper to access than treatment for the wounds they cause. A survivor of the recent mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, California, reportedly said to Gov. Gavin Newsom that he needed to keep his hospital stay as short as possible in order to avoid a massive medical bill. Meanwhile, the suspected perpetrator seemed to have had few obstacles in his quest to legally obtain a semi-automatic weapon to commit deadly violence.

Americans are at the whim of a bewildering patchwork of employer-based private insurance plans, individual health plans via a government-run online marketplace, or government-run health care (for those lucky enough to be eligible). The coverage and costs of plans vary dramatically so that even if one has health insurance there is rarely a guarantee that there will be no out-of-pocket costs associated with accessing care.

It’s hardly surprising then that the latest Gallup poll about health care affirms what earlier polls have said: that a majority of Americans want their government to ensure health coverage for all. In fact, nearly three-quarters of all Democrats want a government-run system.

Gallup also found that a record high number of people put off addressing health concerns because of the cost of care. Thirty-eight percent of Americans said they delayed getting treatment in 2022—that’s 12 percentage points higher than the year before. Unsurprisingly, lower-income Americans were disproportionately affected.

Women are especially impacted, with more women than men delaying treatment as per the same Gallup poll. The findings were consistent with results published by researchers at New York University’s School of Global Public Health—that women’s health care was increasingly unaffordable, compared to men’s—in a study that solely focused on people with employer-based health coverage. Imagine how out-of-reach health care is for uninsured women.

Added to that, Republican-led abortion bans have made it even harder for American women to obtain reproductive health care. On the 50th anniversary of the recently overturned Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, abortion providers in Massachusetts, for example, reported a steady stream of people driving to their state—one where abortion remains legal—to access care.

President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party appear to think that this grim status quo is perfectly acceptable. Democrats’ reliance on the Obama-era Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a bulwark against Republican opposition to any government intervention in health care seems to be resoundingly successful—on paper. In December 2022, Biden touted the fact that 11.5 million Americans, a record high number, had signed up for ACA plans during the last enrollment period. He said, “Gains like these helped us drive down the uninsured rate to eight percent earlier this year, its lowest level in history.”

His administration, rather than working to fulfill what a majority of his party’s constituents want—a government-run health care system—has continued instead to tweak the ACA by extending a period of discounted monthly premiums for private insurance plans. Such tweaks are not permanent. Neither are they a panacea for accessing adequate care. If anything, they are a façade protecting profit-based private insurance companies.

A survey by the Commonwealth Fund found that although the number of insured Americans is now at an all-time high, more than 40 percent of those who bought ACA plans and nearly 30 percent of those with employer-based plans were underinsured—that is, the plans were inadequate to cover their health care needs.

By focusing solely on the number of people who had health plans as a measure of success, the White House is participating in a great coverup of the ongoing American health care tragedy.

Meanwhile, just over the horizon from Biden’s celebration of record numbers of ACA signups is the fact that millions of people currently enrolled in the Medicaid government health plan could lose access because of the end of an emergency provision that allowed for “continuous enrollment.” That provision expires at the end of March 2023. If all Americans were automatically enrolled in government-provided health care regardless of eligibility, this would not be a concern.

Right-wing sources, so terrified that too many Americans want a government-run health system, are busy shaping public opinion against it. The Pacific Research Institute’s Sally Pipes published an op-ed about how Canada’s national health system was a good reason why the U.S. should not have a similar program. Using the deadly logic of a free marketeer, she wrote, “In Canada, health care is ‘free’ at the point of service. As a result, demand for care is sky-high.”

The implication is that charging people for service would reduce the demand, just as it would for, say, an electric vehicle. In Pipes’ world, people are accessing health care just for fun, and if they were charged money for it, their ailments might resolve themselves without treatment.

The Heritage Foundation also published an attack on Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), gleefully claiming that it is “cratering,” and warning that it is a lesson for American liberals who might support a similar “single-payer” system in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board published a similar warning, claiming that the NHS was “failing patients, with deadly consequences.”

It’s puzzling why the Pacific Research Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Wall Street Journal appear unconcerned about the 330,000 Americans who lost their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic simply because they don’t live in a nation with a universal health care program.

The U.S. spends nearly twice as much per capita on health care than other comparable high-income nations. According to Health Affairs, excessive administrative costs are the main reason for this discrepancy—these are nonmedical costs associated with delivering health care in a patchwork system of employer-based private health and publicly subsidized plans. In fact, “administrative spending accounts for 15–30 percent of health care spending.”

Again, right-wing media outlets and think tanks appear unconcerned by this disturbing fact. They only want to convince Americans that a government-run health plan is a bad idea. And, sadly, the Democratic Party leaders like Biden seem to agree implicitly.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers together with Healthy California Now created an online calculator for individuals to determine how much money they would save if the U.S. had a single-payer system.

I have an employer-based health care plan that is considered very good. Using the calculator, I determined that I would save more than $16,000 if California, the state where I live, had a single-payer system. That’s money I could be saving for my children’s higher education or for my retirement.

The victims of mass shootings, like the Half Moon Bay survivor, are saddled with high costs of care on top of the trauma of having been shot. Every year, there are more than 80,000 survivors of injuries from firearms in the United States. Having a single-payer health care system would not fix our epidemic of gun violence. But it would certainly make it easier to bear.

Canada and Britain’s state-run systems of health care may be imperfect, but they are a vast improvement on the survival-of-the-fittest approach that the U.S. takes.

Author Bio: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

Is the United States forgetting Vietnam's lessons in Ukraine?

Friday, January 27th, marked 50 years since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords by representatives from the United States, North and South Vietnam effectively ending American participation in the Vietnamese civil conflict. What the Georgetown University international relations scholar Charles Kuphan calls an “isolationist impulse” made a “significant comeback in response to the Vietnam War, which severely strained the liberal internationalist consensus.”

This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord.

As the Cold War historian John Lamberton Harper points out, President Jimmy Carter’s hawkish Polish-born national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski scorned his intra-administration rival, the cautious, gentlemanly secretary of state Cyrus Vance as “a nice man but burned by Vietnam.” Indeed, Vance and a number of his generation carried with them a profound disillusionment in the aftermath of Vietnam which shaped their approach to the world. And for a short time, the “Vietnam Syndrome,” (shorthand for a wariness and suspicion of unnecessary and unsupportable foreign interventions) occasionally informed policy at the highest levels and manifested itself in the promulgations of the Wienberger and Powell Doctrines which, in theory anyway, were set up as a kind of break on unnecessary military adventures.

But only hours after the successful conclusion of the First Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush declared, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”

And kick it Bush did: In the decades following his 1991 pronouncement, the United States has been at war in one form or another (either as a belligerent or unofficial co-belligerent as is the case with our involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen and in Ukraine) for all but 2 of the 32 years that have followed.

The political-media atmosphere that now prevails in Washington makes it exceedingly difficult to believe such a thing as a ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ ever existed. Indeed, President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine has been met with rapturous approval from the Washington media establishment, winning plaudits from all the usualsuspects.

But what kind of success is it really, when the entire thing might have been avoided by judicious diplomatic engagement? Are we really to believe that a war resulting, so far, in 200,000 dead and 8 million displaced, has been worth an empty promise of NATO membership?

While the war has currently ground to a stalemate, the legacy media and various and sundry think-tank-talking-heads issue regular assurances of steady progress in the field and victory soon to come.

  • Writing in the Journal of Democracy this past September, political scientist and author of the End of History and The Last Man Francis Fukuyama exulted: “Ukraine will win. Slava Ukraini!”
  • Washington Post reporter Liz Sly told readers in early January 2023 that “If 2023 continues as it began, there is a good chance Ukraine will be able to fulfill President Volodymyr Zelensky’s New Year’s pledge to retake all of Ukraine by the end of the year — or at least enough territory to definitively end Russia’s threat, Western officials and analysts say.”
  • Newsweek, reporting in October 2022, informed readers by way of activist Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Russian parliament, that “Russia is not yet on the brink of revolution…but is not far off.”
  • Rutgers University professor Alexander J. Motyl agrees. In a January 2023 article for Foreign Policy magazine titled ‘It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse’ Motyl decried as “stunning” what he believes is a “near-total absence of any discussion among politicians, policymakers, analysts, and journalists of the consequences of defeat for Russia. … considering the potential for Russia’s collapse and disintegration.”
  • Also in early January, the former head of the U.S. Army in Europe, Lt. General Ben Hodges told the Euromaidan Press that, “The decisive phase of the campaign…will be the liberation of Crimea. Ukrainian forces are going to spend a lot of time knocking out or disrupting the logistical networks that are important for Crimea…That is going to be a critical part that leads or sets the conditions for the liberation of Crimea, which I expect will be finished by the end of August.”

As Gore Vidal once quipped, “There is little respite for a people so routinely—so fiercely—disinformed.”

Conspicuous by its absence in what passes for foreign policy discourse in the American capital is the question of American interests: How does the allocation of vast sums to a wondrously corrupt regime in Kiev in any way materially benefit everyday Americans? Is the imposition of a narrow, sectarian Galician nationalism over the whole of Ukraine truly a core American interest? Does the prolongation of a proxy war between NATO and Russia further European and American security interests?

In truth, the lessons of Vietnam were forgotten long ago. The generation that now largely populates the ranks of the Washington media and political establishment came of age when Vietnam was already in the rearview. Today, the unabashed liberal interventionists who staff the Biden administration came up in the 1990s when it was commonly thought the United States didn’t do enough, notably in Bosnia and in Rwanda. As such, and almost without exception, theyhavesupported every American mis-adventure abroad since 9/11.

The caution which, albeit all-too-temporarily, stemmed from the “Vietnam Syndrome” is today utterly absent in the corridors of power in Joe Biden’s Washington. The Vietnam Syndrome is indeed kicked: Dead and buried.

But we may soon regret its passing.

Author Bio: James W. Carden is a former advisor on Russia to the Special Representative for Intergovernmental Affairs at the State Department and a member of the Board of ACURA.

Nuclear fusion won't save the climate. But it might blow up the world

Joshua Frank: The Newest Tool of War?

I continue to find it strange beyond words that the Pentagon is now in the midst of “modernizing” the American nuclear arsenal to the tune of perhaps $2 trillion in the coming decades. I’m sorry, are we really talking about the bombs that once destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki now multiplied in power unbelievably many times over? Are we really talking about weaponry that could, if ever used, leave whole countries in the all-too-literal dust and this planet in a nuclear winter in which billions of us would starve to death? Are these truly the weapons you want to “modernize”?

Only recently, the Air Force proudly rolled out a new nuclear bomber as if on a Hollywood set and there’s so much else still to come, including — hooray! Hurrah! — a “next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile” and a new Columbia Class nuclear submarine, the first of which, the District of Columbia, had a keel-laying ceremony last June. Those subs, the largest ever built by this country, will each house 16 nuclear missiles and have its own nuclear reactor that won’t need to be refueled even once during its lifetime of “service.” It can, in other words, be eternally deployed, ready to destroy the world at a moment’s notice. Honestly, what could possibly go wrong when you’re hard at work modernizing — how else to put it? — the apocalypse?

Today, Joshua Frank, author of a riveting new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the place in this country most likely to give us our own Chernobyl, suggests how the U.S. military’s nuclear modernization project could be taking an all-too-postmodern form. As the headlines have made clear lately, there’s been a breakthrough in nuclear fusion that, “deployed on a large scale,” so the New York Timesreported, “would offer an energy source devoid of the pollution and greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the dangerous long-lived radioactive waste created by current nuclear power plants.”

Or wait a sec! As Frank explains today, it might indeed prove a true breakthrough, though not in making our overheating world a safer place but in preparing to destroy it. Tom

Nuclear Fusion Won't Save the Climate: But It Might Blow Up the World

I awoke on December 13th to news about what could be the most significant scientific breakthrough since the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first Covid vaccine for emergency use two years ago. This time, however, the achievement had nothing to do with that ongoing public health crisis. Instead, as the New York Times and CNN alerted me that morning, at stake was a new technology that could potentially solve the worst dilemma humanity faces: climate change and the desperate overheating of our planet. Net-energy-gain fusion, a long-sought-after panacea for all that’s wrong with traditional nuclear-fission energy (read: accidents, radioactive waste), had finally been achieved at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“This is such a wonderful example of a possibility realized, a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy,” exclaimed White House science adviser Arati Prabhakar.

The New York Times was quick to follow Prabhakar’s lead, boasting that fusion is an “energy source devoid of the pollution and greenhouse gasses caused by the burning of fossil fuels.” Even Fox News, not exactly at the top of anyone’s list of places focused on climate change, jumped on the bandwagon, declaring fusion “a technology that has the potential to accelerate the planet’s shift away from fossil fuels and produce nearly limitless, carbon-free energy.”

All in all, the reviews for fusion were positively glowing and it seemed to make instant sense. What could possibly be wrong with something that might end our reliance on fossil fuels, even as it reduced the risks posed by our aging nuclear industry? The message, repeated again and again in the days that followed: this was a genuine global-warming game-changer.

After all, in the fusion process, no atoms have to be split to create heat. Gigantic lasers are used, not uranium, so there’s no toxic mining involved, nor do thousands of gallons of cold water have to be pumped in to cool overheated reactors, nor will there be radioactive waste byproducts lasting hundreds of thousands of years. And not a risk of a nuclear meltdown in sight! Fusion, so the cheery news went, is safe, effective, and efficient!

Or is it?

The Big Catch

On a very basic level, fusion is the stuff of stars. Within the Earth’s sun, hydrogen combines with helium to create heat in the form of sunlight. Inside the walls of the Livermore Lab, this natural process was imitated by blasting 192 gigantic lasers into a tube the size of a baby’s toe. Inside that cylinder sat a “hydrogen-encased diamond.” When the laser shot through the small hole, it destroyed that diamond quicker than the blink of an eye. In doing so, it created a bunch of invisible x-rays that compressed a small pellet of deuterium and tritium, which scientists refer to as “heavy hydrogen.”

“In a brief moment lasting less than 100 trillionths of a second, 2.05 megajoules of energy — roughly the equivalent of a pound of TNT — bombarded the hydrogen pellet,” explainedNew York Times reporter Kenneth Chang. “Out flowed a flood of neutron particles — the product of fusion — which carried about 3 megajoules of energy, a factor of 1.5 in energy gain.”

As with so many breakthroughs, there was a catch. First, 3 megajoules isn’t much energy. After all, it takes 360,000 megajoules to create 300 hours of light from a single 100-watt light bulb. So, Livermore’s fusion development isn’t going to electrify a single home, let alone a million homes, anytime soon. And there was another nagging issue with this little fusion creation as well: it took 300 megajoules to power up those 192 lasers. Simply put, at the moment, they require 100 times more energy to charge than the energy they ended up producing.

“The reality is that fusion energy will not be viable at scale anytime within the next decade, a time frame over which carbon emissions must be reduced by 50% to avoid catastrophic warming of more than 1.5°C,”says climate expert Michael Mann, a professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania. “That task will only be achievable through the scaling up of existing clean energy — renewable sources such as wind and solar — along with energy storage capability and efficiency and conservation measures.”

Tritium Trials and Tribulations

The secretive and heavily secured National Ignition Facility where that test took place is the size of a sprawling sports arena. It could, in fact, hold three football fields. Which makes me wonder: how much space would be needed to do fusion on a commercial scale? No good answer is yet available. Then there’s the trouble with that isotope tritium needed to help along the fusion reaction. It’s not easy to come by and costs about as much as diamonds, around $30,000 per gram. Right now, even some of the bigwigs at the Department of Defense are worried that we’re running out of usable tritium.

“Fusion advocates often boast that the fuel for their reactors will be cheap and plentiful. That is certainly true for deuterium,”writes Daniel Clery in Science. “Roughly one in every 5,000 hydrogen atoms in the oceans is deuterium, and it sells for about $13 per gram. But tritium, with a half-life of 12.3 years, exists naturally only in trace amounts in the upper atmosphere, the product of cosmic ray bombardment.”

Fusion boosters brush this unwelcome fact aside, pointing out that “tritium breeding” — a process in which tritium is endlessly produced in a loop-like fashion — is entirely possible in a fully operating fusion reactor. In theory, this may seem plausible, but you need a bunch of tritium to jumpstart the initial chain reaction and doubt abounds that there’s enough of it out there to begin with. On top of that, the reactors themselves will have to be lined with a lot of lithium, itself an expensive chemical element at $71 a kilogram (copper, by contrast, is around $9.44 a kilogram), to allow the process to work correctly.

Then there’s also a commonly repeated misstatement that fusion doesn’t create significant radioactive waste, a haunting reality for the world’s current fleet of nuclear plants. True, plutonium, which can be used as fuel in atomic weapons, isn’t a natural byproduct of fusion, but tritium is the radioactive form of hydrogen. Its little isotopes are great at permeating metals and finding ways to escape tight enclosures. Obviously, this will pose a significant problem for those who want to continuously breed tritium in a fusion reactor. It also presents a concern for people worried about radioactivity making its way out of such facilities and into the environment.

“Cancer is the main risk from humans ingesting tritium. When tritium decays it spits out a low-energy electron (roughly 18,000 electron volts) that escapes and slams into DNA, a ribosome, or some other biologically important molecule,” David Biello explains in Scientific American. “And, unlike other radionuclides, tritium is usually part of water, so it ends up in all parts of the body and therefore can, in theory, promote any kind of cancer. But that also helps reduce the risk: any tritiated water is typically excreted in less than a month.”

If that sounds problematic, that’s because it is. This country’s above-ground atomic bomb testing in the 1950s and 1960s was responsible for most of the man-made tritium that’s lingering in the environment. And it will be at least 2046, 84 years after the last American atmospheric nuclear detonation in Nevada, before tritium there will no longer pose a problem for the area.

Of course, tritium also escapes from our existing nuclear reactors and is routinely found near such facilities where it occurs “naturally” during the fission process. In fact, after Illinois farmers discovered their wells had been contaminated by the nearby Braidwood nuclear plant, they successfully sued the site’s operator Exelon, which, in 2005, was caught discharging 6.2 million gallons of tritium-laden water into the soil.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allows the industry to monitor for tritium releases at nuclear sites; the industry is politely asked to alert the NRC in a “timely manner” if tritium is either intentionally or accidentally released. But a June 2011 report issued by the Government Accountability Office cast doubt on the NRC’s archaic system for assessing tritium discharges, suggesting that it’s anything but effective. (“Absent such an assessment, we continue to believe that NRC has no assurance that the Groundwater Protection Initiative will lead to prompt detection of underground piping system leaks as nuclear power plants age.”)

Consider all of this a way of saying that, if the NRC isn’t doing an adequate job of monitoring tritium leaks already occurring with regularity at the country’s nuclear plants, how the heck will it do a better job of tracking the stuff at fusion plants in the future? And as I suggest in my new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, the NRC is plain awful at just about everything it does.

Instruments of Death

All of that got me wondering: if tritium, vital for the fusion process, is radioactive, and if they aren’t going to be operating those lasers in time to put the brakes on climate change, what’s really going on here?

Maybe some clues lie (as is so often the case) in history. The initial idea for a fusion reaction was proposed by English physicist Arthur Eddington in 1920. More than 30 years later, on November 1, 1952, the first full-scale U.S. test of a thermonuclear device, “Operation Ivy,” took place in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It yielded a mushroom-cloud explosion from a fusion reaction equivalent in its power to 10.4 Megatons of TNT. That was 450 times more powerful than the atomic bomb the U.S. had dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki only seven years earlier to end World War II. It created an underwater crater 6,240 feet wide and 164 feet deep.

“The Shot, as witnessed aboard the various vessels at sea, is not easily described,” noted a military report on that nuclear experiment. “Accompanied by a brilliant light, the heat wave was felt immediately at distances of thirty to thirty-five miles. The tremendous fireball, appearing on the horizon like the sun when half-risen, quickly expanded after a momentary hover time.”

Nicknamed “Ivy Mike,” the bomb was a Teller-Ulam thermonuclear device, named after its creators Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam. It was also the United States’ first full-scale hydrogen bomb, an altogether different beast than the two awful nukes dropped on Japan in August 1945. Those bombs utilized fission in their cores to create massive explosions. But Ivy Mike gave a little insight into what was still possible for future weapons of annihilation.

The details of how the Teller-Ulam device works are still classified, but historian of science Alex Wellerstein explained the concept well in the New Yorker:

The basic idea is, as far as we know, as follows. Take a fission weapon — call it the primary. Take a capsule of fusionable material, cover it with depleted uranium, and call it the secondary. Take both the primary and the secondary and put them inside a radiation case — a box made of very heavy materials. When the primary detonates, radiation flows out of it, filling the case with X rays. This process, which is known as radiation implosion, will, through one mechanism or another… compress the secondary to very high densities, inaugurating fusion reactions on a large scale. These fusion reactions will, in turn, let off neutrons of such a high energy that they can make the normally inert depleted uranium of the secondary’s casing undergo fission.

Got it? Ivy Mike was, in fact, a fission explosion that initiated a fusion reaction. But ultimately, the science of how those instruments of death work isn’t all that important. The takeaway here is that, since first tried out in that monstrous Marshall Islands explosion, fusion has been intended as a tool of war. And sadly, so it remains, despite all the publicity about its possible use some distant day in relation to climate change. In truth, any fusion breakthroughs are potentially of critical importance not as a remedy for our warming climate but for a future apocalyptic world of war. Despite all the fantastic media publicity, that’s how the U.S. government has always seen it and that’s why the latest fusion test to create “energy” was executed in the utmost secrecy at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. One thing should be taken for granted: the American government is interested not in using fusion technology to power the energy grid, but in using it to further strengthen this country’s already massive arsenal of atomic weapons.

Consider it an irony, under the circumstances, but in its announcement about the success at Livermore — though this obviously wasn’t what made the headlines — the Department of Energy didn’t skirt around the issue of gains for future atomic weaponry. Jill Hruby, the department’s undersecretary for nuclear security, admitted that, in achieving a fusion ignition, researchers had “opened a new chapter in NNSA’s science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program.” (NNSA stands for the National Nuclear Security Administration.) That “chapter” Hruby was bragging about has a lot more to do with “modernizing” the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities than with using laser fusion to end our reliance on fossil fuels.

“Had we not pursued the hydrogen bomb,” Edward Teller once said, “there is a very real threat that we would now all be speaking Russian. I have no regrets.” Some attitudes die hard.

Buried deep in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s website, the government comes clean about what these fusion experiments at the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) are really all about:

NIF’s high energy density and inertial confinement fusion experiments, coupled with the increasingly sophisticated simulations available from some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, increase our understanding of weapon physics, including the properties and survivability of weapons-relevant materials… The high rigor and multidisciplinary nature of NIF experiments play a key role in attracting, training, testing, and retaining new generations of skilled stockpile stewards who will continue the mission to protect America into the future.

Yes, despite all the media attention to climate change, this is a rare yet intentional admission, surely meant to frighten officials in China and Russia. It leaves little doubt about what this fusion breakthrough means. It’s not about creating future clean energy and never has been. It’s about “protecting” the world’s greatest capitalist superpower. Competitors beware.

Sadly, fusion won’t save the Arctic from melting, but if we don’t put a stop to it, that breakthrough technology could someday melt us all.

How progressives can finally make this country ours: Part two

In Part 1 I talked about the necessity of Progressives moving beyond our self-defeating defensive strategy of resistance shifting instead to an offensive electoral strategy for power making a Progressive future actually possible. I suggested that we move away from our defensive mindset by building a national multiracial electoral organization directed for the first time by a unified central Progressive Command, with regional coordinators tying us together east, west, north and south guiding and maximizing our collective efforts around the country.

But HOW do we do it? How do we shift power away from Wall St. to Main St. Although I can’t give you every detail, what I can offer are enough specifics that if followed WILL get us to the future we seek.

So to start, our new national organization would originate in each state by setting up Progressive Unity Summits to get us acquainted, build trust, and start to identify a common agenda that gets us on the same page as much, as often and as soon as possible. Step 1 will be to identify every Progressive group in the state, get a building with a date and time about 2-3 weeks out and then send out a motivating invitation. Over these weeks in preparation we’ll identify each group's priorities and develop an agenda that encourages building relationships toward the unity necessary for success. We’ll call for the creation of local, state, and national teams that would begin the process of identifying, vetting and supporting Progressive candidates. Remember this is about electing Progressives toward majorities from the Congress to the local level. Those attending this first summit and those who later join, will comprise a statewide steering committee that will receive recommendations from each team for their collective input and support. About 2-3 months out we’ll contact key Progressive groups around the country to plan our first NATIONAL Unity Summit. There we’ll create a central decision-making authority, assign regional coordinators and announce our candidate preferences.

READ MORE: How progressives can finally make this country ours

As we get underway in our states with the Summit, our individual groups would focus on two basic committees - one addressing our material necessities and the other creating a personal community design addressing an even deeper discontent that transcends our material needs. It would operate independent of but in tandem with our political agenda. This 3 part community plan will address the deeper meaning needs of our human communities focusing on the personal connections vital to our emotional, physical and collective well-being. It will include - Personal Story Circle's to get to know one another beyond the surface, Social Activities for FUN to know each other more informally, and Extended Families to minimize the isolation felt by too many of us. On the material side our priority will be the Summit developing a neighborhood outreach strategy (during and between elections) that personalizes our approach beyond just saying hooray for our issues and candidates. We will do that by reminding one another of our deeply held SHARED values of democracy, justice, equality and freedom, and our human values of kindness, empathy and simply looking out for one another. This more visceral approach is intended to address today's profound level of distrust. Do you ever wonder why the American people, who support most of our issues, are rarely there for us at the ballot box?

So what do I do NOW? First touch base with a current Progressive group. But if there are none or they're unwilling to prioritize the Summit strategy or the necessity of a personal community design then find a handful of like-minded persons and launch it yourself. That's what I personally intend to do. Eventually we’ll have a website that includes exactly HOW to set up our groups but until then feel free to contact me for further discussion. rcohen2@comcast.net

Through it all remember that our future is in our hands but only if we put it there by doing the work DIFFERENTLY. Also never forget that who we’ve BECOME, whether collectively or individually, is NOT who we ARE. There is, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, an “imprisoned splendor in each of us” So the best is yet to come!

Rich Cohen has been an ACTIVE Progressive dating back to his participation in the student strike at San Francisco State College in 1968. Since then he has built Progressive groups in Los Angeles and Portland Or. including working with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda to help bring Rent Control to the city of Los Angeles and more recently in 2015 setting up the Bernie Sanders Speakers Bureau in Portland Oregon and then preparing to do the same for Elizabeth Warren before she ended her 2020 campaign. I can be reached at rcohen2@comcast.net

READ MORE: How concentrated wealth and corporate power nurture the greed of thieves

Conspiracism isn't a disease. It's a feature of America

It’s articles like this one by Brian Klaas that have me despairing for the future of the republic. Not because he identifies “a particularly insidious disease … that is not present to the same degree in other rich democracies,” which he calls extreme conspiracism. I despair, because articles like this one choose opaque abstractions over the clear and historical conditions in which “extreme conspiracism” is a feature.

Articles like this one deny the truth.

Battling with ourselves

READ MORE: Pelosi attack video release leads to criticism of Musk, right-wingers who ‘trafficked in homophobic conspiracy nonsense’

Klaas is by all appearances a wunderkind. He’s 36 and already the author of four influential works of scholarship. A native Minnesotan, he was educated at the University of Oxford before becoming a professor of political science at the University College London. Among members of the commentariat, especially observers of American foreign policy, his work is highly regarded. His reputation climbs steadily upward. Making this success more successful is his high perch as contributor to The Atlantic.

So Klaas is no schlub. No matter how he might identify himself, he’s an elite who writes for other elites. There’s my despair. If Klaas does not see the truth about America, perhaps many, or most, or all, elites don’t either. What’s the truth? It’s right in front of us – if we’re willing to see it. We can’t make good choices if we, but especially elites, keep denying it.

We are the truth. America is us. We are America. There is no disease. There is no infection (the pandemic notwithstanding). What you see is what we are. What we are is what you see. America is no more or less than the obvious. Some wanted a peaceful transfer of power on January 6, 2021. Some wanted insurrection. Some wanted democracy, some anarchy. Some wanted order, some chaos. That’s America: a neverending violent paradox.

Is greed a virus? Is treason a sickness? Is cruelty an illness that can be cured. These are personality traits, innate psychological structures. They are not treatable. Gluttony, fear, pride, etc. – these help constitute the multiverse of characteristics that constitute the American character.

READ MORE: Shameless self-promotion: Media rush to rehabilitate Trump regime as fascists expertly exploit the free press

These characteristics are not going away. They have been with us. They will be with us. The question isn’t whether we are X. The question is, given that we are X, and given that we have determined that we are X, what are we going to do with that truth? “The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality,” Klaas wrote. It won’t. We’ll do what we always do.

Battle with ourselves.

Not an infection

I read a lot of commentary, mostly by elite voices. (That’s simply the nature of the pundit corps.) So I have come to suspect something about writers who gaze down from misty heights onto the open, gritty, tangy mundane of American life. To them, America isn’t just another country. It can’t be. If it were, it would fall short of their vision of it, especially their placein it. How can elites be elite in a country that’s just like any other country?

Or they want it to be like another country whose eliteness is indubitable to other elites, because deep down they know that the United States will never be what they want it to be, a democracy whose politics is befitting of their place in the order of power, a country whose culture won’t give up space to people who shouldn’t have any. For Klaas, that’s Britain.

Comparing the two underscores his point about extreme conspiracism. Other countries have polarized politics, including Britain, he said, but America is exceptional in that its polarization is “irrational.” “One political party [the GOP] has fallen under the spell of conspiratorial thinking.”

Polarization is one thing, he wrote last week. But adding conspiracism to it is another. “Polarization plus this conspiracist tendency risks turning run-of-the-mill democratic dysfunction into a democratic death spiral. The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality.”

While in the United States, the conspiracy theorists have a dedicated place at the table of democracy, thanks to the Republican Party providing a place for them to sit, in Britain, “conspiracy theorists are ostracized by the political establishment,” Klaas said. “Politicians may disagree about policy, but those who disagree about reality face real consequences.”

Klaas wrote: “What’s really troubling about this political moment in America, though, is not merely the spread of conspiratorial thinking in the general population. It’s also that the delusions have infected the mainstream political leadership. The crackpots have come to Congress.”

No, it has not been infected.

It’s the way it is.

The body politic

I don’t want to reduce Klaas or his essay to cartoons. I’m sure many see his way of seeing things, and agree with him, even if they’re not elites. There’s much to be said about “irrational polarization,” especially how dangerous it is. The coming fight over the debt ceiling is an example.

But the Republicans do not stand apart from the voters whom they pander to. Political leaders are not separate from their followers. We all eat, sleep and breathe in the same air in the same country with the same history whose multiverse of details accreted to become the present.

The Republicans, and leaders generally, are part of the cultural status quo, same as everyone else. The cultural status quo in the United States does make it exceptional when compared to other countries, but not in the way Klaas would have us believe. In America, race and racism – dominance and suffering – constitute everything, especially what we consider to be normal. White power is the beginninng and the end of our politics.

White power is, in other words, irrational.

It is conspiratorial.

It asks us to believe some people are inherently and morally better than others due to the wealth they possess or the dearth of melanin in their skin. It asks us to turn away from categorical suffering on account of those who suffer surely deserving it. It asks us to look at the sky and say it’s green. It asks us to punish dissidents. It asks us to nod in agreement with those rationalizing generational poverty. It expects us to overlook, or dismiss outright, the moral abominations of mass death and genocide.

Conspiratorial thinking has not infected the body politic of America.

It is the body politic of America.

A heavy lift

Perhaps this is why elite opiniontalkers work so hard to talk about anything but the thing that’s the root of all things in America.

It’s easier to worry about conspiratorial thinking “becoming” a “defining feature” of the Republican Party instead of a defining feature of America.

It’s easier to fret over the “lonely and bored” who are “particularly vulnerable” to thinking in terms of “good and evil,” and to bedazzle other elites by describing that thinking with five-dollar words like “Manchaean,” instead of recognizing that thinking in terms of “good and evil” is how virtually everyone thinks to some degree or another, good and bad.

It’s much easier to brood over the likelihood of polarization” merging with “deranged conspiracy theories” to spark “democratic breakdown.”

Klaas said that “one purpose of democratic government is to allow citizens to solve problems through compromise without resorting to violence,” apparently forgetting the indelibly linked aspects of American political life: democratic government coexisting with political violence.

Ultimately, it’s about asking the right questions. Klaas asks whether we can overcome the “particularly insidious disease” of “extreme conspiracism” but without acknowledging, or even mentioning, the historical conditions in which “extreme conspiracism” is a feature.

Instead of asking how the United States is going to overcome a feature of an underlying and historical condition, we should admit that that’s the condition, underlying and historical. Then we can work from there.

But that’s a heavy lift, even for elites in the commentariat who have the resources necessary for heavy lifting. White power, after all, is how elites continue to be elite. Why question that when they can ask whether democracy survives now that “the crackpots have come to Congress”?

READ MORE: 'I think it's pretty obvious': Sean Hannity claims the Bidens hired 'SWAT' teams to 'attack' their critics

Mass death shouldn’t be a consequence of disagreement

I can’t end the week without mentioning the twin massacres in California. The first was in Monterey Park, near Los Angeles. Eleven were killed. The second was in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco. Seven were killed. Both were committed by elderly Asian-American men. The mass shootings were two of 70 this month, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

The usual questions arose, wroteUSA Today columnist Rex Huppke: “Why? What was the shooter’s motive? Who inspired him? Who can we blame?”

For Huppke, as for me, motive is a decoy. Finding the cause of gun violence, he said, gets in the way of recognizing its outcomes: One, that “a human with enough hate to kill” had “a gun that helped that person do the killing.” Two, that “the same thing that keeps happening has happened again.”

Huppke said that if we hold off on reacting emotionally to the effects of mass gun violence until “we can blame something other than the hate in the shooter and the gun in his hand,” we’ll never stop mass gun violence.

I agree but, I don’t think inaction is a consequence of desensitization. Huppke said that “we can’t let ourselves become so inured to America’s murderous rhythm that we need to know more before we let ourselves feel.”

Perhaps feeling the suffering of others will inspire reform.

I wish it were that simply.

Sadism is never simple.

Angels dancing on pinheads

To the degree that we have become “inured” to mass death, it isn’t a result of getting used to it (though we have). It’s a consequence of having accepted mass death as an outcome of legitimate political disagreement.

As common as asking why people kill other people wholesale is the false equivalence among the newsspeakers and opiniontalkers who largely set the agenda and inform the public’s understanding of mass death. I’m not talking about “gun rights versus gun control” or “individual liberty versus public safety.” These are not false equivalences, but they are false. The real false equivalence is inferred and subliminal: “mass death versus rights.”

No one believes you have a right to kill another person, or even harm another person in direct or indirect ways. No matter how much you love the constitution, you no doubt agree that your freedom stops at another’s freedom. Rights should be protected. More important, people should be.

Yet when it comes to shooting massacres, this common sense disappears. Instead of admitting that mass death is unacceptable no matter how it happens or why, and then doing something collectively to stop it, we busy ourselves by arguing about how many angels are dancing on a pinhead.

As Huppke said: “Was it a hate crime? (How could it be driven by anything but hate?) Was the shooter liberal or conservative? (Does it matter to those mourning?) Was it random or targeted? (Does either answer help?)”

A result of these pinheads is allowing ourselves to accept mass death as a consequence of legitimate political disagreement, as if the Second Amendment, or any amendment, is a good reason to permit 70 mass shootings in less than a month, in which scores of dozens are killed. There’s no shortage of things to disagree on. Mass death shouldn’t be one of them.

Mass death-desiring

It is, though. That’s why we should face the hard truth. Mass death is a consequence of legitimate political disagreement as well as a consequence of sadists using legitimate political disagreement to mask their sadism.

Truth is, lots of Americans don’t mind mass death as long as it’s visiting “those people.” Even if it’s visiting them and their kin, however, it’s still OK. A few dead Americans are a small price for maintaining the white order.

I have talked myself blue talking about how being pro-gun is being pro-white power. My point is that desensitization – or being “insured to America’s murderous rhythms” – is not necessarily rooted in seeing terrible things happening over and over. As likely is that desensitization is rooted in indifference to suffering or even desiring to see “those people” suffer.

It’s very liberal to think that empathy is the road to gun law reform.

Perhaps liberality will win in the end. Who knows?

But it’s naive to suggest that motive-hunting is emotion-blocking is mass death-enabling. Emotion-enabling on a social scale won’t stop mass death-happening as long as there are sadists around who will use legitimate political disagreement to hide their mass death-desiring.

Shameless self-promotion: Media rush to rehabilitate Trump regime as fascists expertly exploit the free press

There is no such thing as "the liberal media."

That is language concocted by the Republican Party and right-wing consultants with the goal of bullying the American news media into being compliant and subservient to the "conservative" agenda.

And they were remarkably successful in achieving that goal.

Decades later it is now an accepted "fact" among America's political class, the general public, and the mainstream news media itself that there is such a thing as "liberal bias" in the news industry. The enduring myth of the "liberal media" is one of many examples of how the American right has successfully weaponized language with a propaganda campaign to shape the country's political terrain in their interests.

Republicans have marketed themselves as defenders of "freedom." In reality, they are authoritarians who support a range of policies that limit human and civil rights.

The Republican Party has created a brand that is based upon "family values." This is fiction. The policies and ideology of the modern GOP are centered upon gutting the social safety net and ending the county's already very weak and still developing social democracy. If they are successful in that agenda, the overall well-being of American families will be greatly diminished.

The "conservative" movement staunchly claims to be "pro-life." This is not true. Their policies and ideology have actually shortened the lives of the American people as seen with health care, gun violence, the global climate crisis and environment, the COVID pandemic, and social inequality more generally.

Former Rep. Newt Gingrich is one of the main architects of the strategy that allowed the Republican Party to win the language wars and the central role of the myth of "the liberal media" in that outcome. In 1995, the media watchdog group FAIR explained how:

Since winning control of Congress, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R.-Ga.) has constantly complained about "destructive" and "negative" coverage from the "liberal elite media."… In fact, the new speaker of the House—who once described his goal as "reshaping the entire nation through the news media" (New York Times, 12/14/94)—has given a great deal of thought to the media and how to manipulate them. One Newtonian axiom is "fights make news" (Boston Globe, 11/20/94). Another skill he has taught to Republican candidates through his political organization, GOPAC, is how to create a "shield issue" to deflect criticism…

But the clearest expression of Gingrich's philosophy of media came in a GOPAC memo entitled "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control." Distributed to GOP candidates across the country, the memo's list of words for Democrats and words for Republicans was endorsed by Gingrich in a cover letter: "The words in that paper are tested language from a recent series of focus groups where we actually tested ideas and language." Next time you hear Gingrich complain about media focusing on the negative, refer back to these lists.

In a widely cited 2003 essay at The Nation, media critic and author Eric Alterman said the following about the myth of "the liberal media":

Move over to the mainstream publications and broadcasts often labeled "liberal," and you see how ridiculous the notion of liberal dominance becomes. ….

I could go on, but the point is clear: Conservatives are extremely well represented in every facet of the media. The correlative point is that even the genuine liberal media are not so liberal. And they are no match–either in size, ferocity or commitment–for the massive conservative media structure that, more than ever, determines the shape and scope of our political agenda.

In a careful 1999 study published in the academic journal Communications Research, four scholars examined the use of the "liberal media" argument and discovered a fourfold increase in the number of Americans telling pollsters that they discerned a liberal bias in their news. But a review of the media's actual ideological content, collected and coded over a twelve-year period, offered no corroboration whatever for this view. The obvious conclusion: News consumers were responding to "increasing news coverage of liberal bias media claims, which have been increasingly emanating from Republican Party candidates and officials."

The right is working the refs. And it's working. Much of the public believes a useful but unsupportable myth about the so-called liberal media, and the media themselves have been cowed by conservatives into repeating their nonsensical nostrums virtually nonstop. As the economist/pundit Paul Krugman observes of Republican efforts to bully the media into accepting the party's Orwellian arguments about Social Security privatization: "The next time the administration insists that chocolate is vanilla, much of the media–fearing accusations of liberal bias, trying to create the appearance of 'balance'–won't report that the stuff is actually brown; at best they'll report that some Democrats claim that it's brown."

In the real world of the right-wing media, the pundits are the conservatives' shock troops. Even the ones who constantly complain about alleged liberal control of the media cannot ignore the vast advantage their side enjoys when it comes to airing their views on television, in the opinion pages, on the radio and the Internet.

In total, the mainstream news media is inherently "small c" conservative. As a social institution it prioritizes making money and is averse to change. As such, the American mainstream news media also serves an agenda-setting and boundary-enforcing function that sets limits on the "approved public discourse." In that role, liberal and progressives are routinely silenced out of deference to "conservative" and right-wing voices – however extreme the latter may be.

Because the mainstream news media are aligned with the powerful as a class, they prioritize having access to them in what is a parasitic and symbiotic relationship. In practice, this meant that access to the powerful — especially for DC beltway journalists — is more important than bold truth-telling and consistently speaking truth to power. The conservative nature of the American news media and its institutional bias towards "normalcy" helps to explain why it has been so unable to properly pivot and adapt to the realities of the Age of Trump, rising neofascism, and the country's ongoing democracy crisis. Thus, the continued habit of using obsolete norms such as "bothsideism," an overempahsis on "horserace coverage," an obsession with political personalities instead of systems and power, and an amplification of the controversy of the day instead of on fundamental issues.

One of the most dangerous examples of how the media has been conditioned by the right through the myth of "liberal bias" is how it is now helping to launder the reputations of several Trump regime members and other Republican fascists. In a very high-profile example of reputation laundering, The New York Times — which is routinely attacked by right-wing media for committing the "crime" of "liberal bias" (a baseless and absurd claim) — recently featured a guest opinion essay by former Trump regime advisor and propagandist Kellyanne Conway. Her Times op-ed contained Trump political pornography such as this:

Donald J. Trump shocked the world in 2016 by winning the White House and becoming the first president in U.S. history with no prior military or government experience. He upended the fiction of electability pushed by pundits, the news media and many political consultants, which arrogantly projects who will or will not win long before votes are cast. He focused instead on capturing a majority in the Electoral College, which is how a candidate does or does not win. Not unlike Barack Obama eight years earlier, Mr. Trump exposed the limits of Hillary Clinton's political inevitability and personal likability, connected directly with people, ran an outsider's campaign taking on the establishment, and tapped into the frustrations and aspirations of millions of Americans.

Some people have never gotten over it. Trump Derangement Syndrome is real. There is no vaccine and no booster for it. Cosseted in their social media bubbles and comforted within self-selected communities suffering from sameness, the afflicted disguise their hatred for Mr. Trump as a righteous call for justice or a solemn love of democracy and country. So desperate is the incessant cry to "get Trump!" that millions of otherwise pleasant and productive citizens have become naggingly less so. They ignore the shortcomings, failings and unpopularity of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and abide the casual misstatements of an administration that says the "border is secure," inflation is "transitory," "sanctions are intended to deter" Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine and they will "shut down the virus." They've also done precious little to learn and understand what drives the 74 million fellow Americans who were Trump-Pence voters in 2020 and not in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

In her New York Times audition for a job on Trump's 2024 presidential campaign, Conway also wrote:

A popular sentiment these days is, "I want the Trump policies without the Trump personality." It is true that limiting the name-calling frees up time and space for persuasion and solutions. Still, it may not be possible to have one without the other. Mr. Trump would remind people that it was a combination of his personality and policies that forced Mexico to help secure our border; structured new trade agreements and renewed manufacturing, mining and energy economies; pushed to get Covid vaccines at warp speed; engaged Kim Jong-un; played hardball with China; routed ISIS and removed Qassim Suleimani, Iran's most powerful military commander; forced NATO countries to increase their defense spending and stared down Mr. Putin before he felt free to invade Ukraine.

When it comes to Donald J. Trump, people see what they wish to see. Much like with the audio debate a few years ago "Do you hear 'Laurel' or 'Yanny'?," what some perceive as an abrasive, scornful man bent on despotism, others see as a candid, resolute leader unflinchingly committed to America's interests.

There were thousands of comments on the New York Times website in response to Conway's column and the publication's decision to allow her such a privileged platform. Based on a cursory review, a good many, if not most of these comments were negative. The Times even featured one such complaint in a letter to the editor:

A diversity of opinions and perspectives is a fantastic goal, and one reason I've been a longtime subscriber. Generally speaking, your opinion guest essays are well written and thoughtful and provide a point of view that makes one examine a topic with fresh eyes.

The opinion from Ms. Conway is not that.

Time and again she employs sloganeering to sling arrows at Democrats and non-Trumpists in an attempt to burnish the reputation of her former boss.

She continues to attempt to turn neighbor against neighbor by perpetuating the othering of Trump detractors and the denial of Mr. Trump's and her attacks on voting, democracy and simple decency.

Hers is not another "opinion"; it is carefully crafted and intentional spin to appeal to people's sense of grievance and to reaffirm the lies and misinformation they are so ready to believe.

Her inclusion in your paper diminishes the quality of debate, and galvanizes a person America would be better off forgetting.

Conway is representative of a larger pattern where such leading news media outlets as the New York Times, CNN, CBS, NBC and others are deciding to amplify and provide a platform for Trumpists, Republican-fascists, and other right-wing anti-democracy voices. They are doing this behind the cover of "fairness" and "balancing" when in reality such a decision is based on fear, profit-maximizing, and strategically positioning themselves to be in good favor with the Republican Party, "conservatives" and other anti-democratic forces as a type of insurance policy and security blanket for what promises to be a very perilous and unsettled future.

In an essay at Medium, journalist and author Wajahat Ali warns that "Even in the face of increased threats and a failed coup, too many journalists in mainstream media outlets will continue to pave the road toward fascism with their 'both sides' coverage." He continues, "Access journalism is a parasitic relationship. Some of these journalists are like small remoras, or shark suckers, who attach to sharks to get to their destination. If they were riding the shark in JAWS, they'd write an article blaming the townspeople for forcing the shark to eat them":

There's a class of journalists belonging to legacy outlets and corporate media who are incapable of shedding their antiquated, toxic skin and adapting to the changing political and cultural landscape where disinformation, white supremacist conspiracy theories, and right-wing stochastic terrorism is the norm. Instead, they chase the North Star, which isn't the truth, but rather access to power, ratings, and a path toward personal success….

Instead of bending the knee to right-wing intimidation, platforming their lies, mainstreaming their hate, and engaging in "both sides" nonsense to create the fiction of symmetry in an utterly asymmetrical reality, these political journalists need to be biased in favor of the truth and democracy.

Ultimately, the American mainstream news media needs to engage in a type of personal inventory and critical self-reflection about its role in democracy and failings (and successes) in the Age of Trump and beyond.In short, it must do better as it strives to live up to the ideals of the Fourth Estate in a democracy. A big step in that direction would be refusing to participate in the reputation laundering and rehabilitation of Trump's regime members and other neo-fascists and enemies of democracy in today's Republican Party and larger right-wing and "conservative" movement.

If the American mainstream news media does not do this necessary and hard work it is just contributing to its own legitimacy crisis and lack of trust among the American people, which in turn means aiding the Republican fascists and other enemies of a free press and democracy.

Burkina Faso ejects French troops

On January 18, 2023, the government of Burkina Faso made a decision to ask the French military forces to depart from the country within a month. This decision was made by the government of Captain Ibrahim Traoré, who staged the second coup of 2022 in Burkina Faso in September to remove Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who had seized power in a coup d’état in January. Traoré, now the interim president of Burkina Faso, said that Damiba, who is in exile in Togo, had not fulfilled the objectives of the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, the name of their military group. Traoré’s government accused Damiba of not being able to stem the insurgency in the country’s north and of colluding with the French (alleging that Damiba had taken refuge in the French military base at Kamboinsin to launch a strike against the coup within a coup).

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

France entered the Sahel region in 2013 to prevent the southern movement of jihadist elements strengthened by the war in Libya, prosecuted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In the past few years, anti-French sentiment has deepened in North Africa and the Sahel. It was this sentiment that provoked the coups in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and then in Burkina Faso (January 2022 and September 2022). In February 2022, Mali’s government ejected the French military, accusing French forces of committing atrocities against civilians and colluding with jihadi insurgents. Burkina Faso has now joined Mali.

The ejection of France does not mean that there will be no NATO countries in the region. Both the United States and Britain have a large footprint from Morocco to Niger, with the United States trying to draw African countries into its contest against China and Russia. Regular trips by U.S. military leaders—such as U.S. Marine Corps General Michael Langley (commander of U.S. Africa Command) to Gabon in mid-January – and by U.S. civilian leaders—like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to Senegal, South Africa, and Zambia—are part of a full-court press to ensure that African states forge closer ties with the United States and its allies over China. The designation of Russia’s Wagner Group—which is said to be operating in the Sahel—as a “transnational criminal organization ” by the United States and the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, held in mid-December, are both attempts to draw African states into a new cold war.

Almost half of the Burkinabé population lives below the poverty line, and “more than 630,000 people are on the brink of starvation,” in the country, according to the UN. The country is, however, not poor with its gold export reaching $7.19 billion in 2020. These gains do not go to the Burkinabé people but go to the large mining companies. Ejection of the French military will not be the answer to these deep-seated problems faced by Burkina Faso.

Author Bio: Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

Why union workers are a front-line defense to protect Social Security

Cliff Carlton was the 10th of 11 children and one of three still living at home when his father, a coal miner, died unexpectedly at 67.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Only his dad’s Social Security benefits, along with vegetables from the family’s small farm in southwestern Virginia, kept the household afloat during the lean years that followed.

That battle for survival made Carlton a lifelong champion of Social Security and a tireless opponent of the Republicans in Congress who keep trying to kill this lifeline for the middle class.

“It’s not a gift. It’s money that we’re due,” explained Carlton, vice president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 8-UR2 and president of the Virginia Alliance for Retired Americans.

“We put money into it. We deserve it back,” continued Carlton, 70, a retired tire manufacturing worker and longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who’s attended rallies and lobbied Congress on behalf of Social Security for 30 years.

Republicans long hoped to privatize Social Security, preferring to gamble Americans’ futures on the stock market rather than force the wealthy to pay their fair share of the taxes needed to sustain the program. Fortunately, congressional Democrats, union members, and other Americans torpedoed these schemes.

But now there’s a new threat. To secure enough votes to become speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy toadied to extremist Republicans whose demands for radical budget cuts once again put Social Security and Medicare at risk.

Pro-corporate Republicans openly plot to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age, moves that would force millions of Americans to work longer and delay their retirements. Some Republicans even want to gut the current funding formula, slashing payments to Americans with other income, regardless of how much they pay into the program.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare warns that this kind of con, called means-testing, would end Social Security as Americans know it and take benefits even from those with “very modest incomes.”

“If you lose something, you don’t ever get it back,” observed Carlton, who fears that Republican toying with Social Security will break seniors already living on the margins amid skyrocketing medical costs and mounting bills stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to providing a buffer against unexpected health crises, Social Security is the only resource many retirees have when they outlive the nest eggs they accumulated during their working years.

“My grandmother is 102 years old. She retired at the age of 65 the year I was born, so I’ve never known her except in a retired state. She still lives on her own,” said Mike Budd, 37, a Marine Corps veteran and member of USW Local 12775, who credits Social Security with enabling his grandma, a former bank teller, to maintain her independence and high quality of life for decades.

“In fact, that’s the reason I’m very passionate about keeping this program around,” said Budd, who works as a substation electrician at Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO).

Democratic President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate will continue to protect Social Security—and Medicare—from the Republicans who narrowly regained control of the House in November 2022. Still, the Republicans vow to stage a showdown over America’s debt and allow the nation to careen toward default in a reckless gambit to commandeer the spending cuts they want.

Ironically, many of the same Republicans bent on eviscerating Social Security have huge personal fortunes on top of congressional pensions and enjoy a level of financial security out of reach of most Americans.

“It’s certainly easy to tell people to make do with less when they have more,” noted Budd, chair of Local 12775’s Veterans of Steel Committee, who was deployed to Iraq three times from 2004 to 2009 as an aircraft mechanic with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 14 (MALS-14).

“There were no millionaires deployed with me,” noted Budd, only “a lot of working-class people” who loved their country and believed in the American dream that Republicans now threaten.

Some Republicans attempt to soft-pedal their shenanigans by saying they won’t cut benefits for current recipients, only future retirees who would have “time to adjust” to the changes, likely by working longer.

That angers Budd, who’s been paying Social Security taxes since he was a 16-year-old with a summer job at an equipment rental company and expects the long-promised return on his ongoing investment.

He’s already laying the financial groundwork for his golden years, and those plans hinge on a robust Social Security program that will not only let him retire at a decent age but will also support him as well as it has his grandma should he also live to 102.

Instead of cutting essential programs, TJ Stephens said, he’d like to see Republicans agree to fairly tax uber-rich Americans who use dodgy loopholes to pay little or nothing now. And he’d like to see more wealthy tax cheats and deadbeats run to the ground.

Stephens, a member of USW Local 9231 and an electrician at the Cleveland-Cliffs complex in New Carlisle, Indiana, regards Social Security as America’s contract with working people—one as inviolable as the one he signed when he joined the Air Force at 19 and went off to serve as a satellite communications technician at Langley Air Force Base.

“Inhumane is the best word I can think of,” Stephens, 37, said of Republican plans to move the goalposts on those already paying into Social Security and force younger Americans to “work ourselves into the grave.”

Ultimately, Carlson predicted, public anger will stop the Republicans in their tracks. He’s planning to ratchet up his activism and get more retirees to join him.

“It makes a difference,” he said of Social Security. “It’s not something we’re going to give up without an extraordinary fight.”

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

Ron DeSantis's huge step toward academic control

As I explained for the Editorial Board, CRT is a sociolegal framework to analyze ways in which our legal system perpetuates racism.

It’s not anti-white people.

It’s not about making white people feel guilty.

READ MORE: Ron DeSantis claims he banned teaching Black history because it includes 'indoctrination' on 'queer theory'

It won’t hurt white people or bring about white genocide.

Yet Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others are treating CRT as it were a major threat to American life. Not satisfied with controlling k-12 education, many Republicans are now seeking to make the public university system an arm of government control in order to outlaw CRT as well as violate trans people’s rights.

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say this is directly out of Nazi laws passed in 1933. Though if this Republican effort is successful, you might not be able to learn things like that anymore.

Ridiculous but effective

READ MORE: Trump could end DeSantis' presidential hopes with a series of surprising attacks: analyst

In 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor, the Nazi party took power in Germany and got down to the business of passing laws to enforce political narratives and other ways of thinking.

Two laws were passed in 1933 that successfully targeted German universities. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service banned “non-aryans” (with a few exceptions) from civil service positions that included university professors.

The Law against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities set strict limitations on the number of Jewish students permitted to attend public and private schools and universities in Germany.

The fascist control of education didn’t stop there. It included reforms to promote German art, philosophy and even “Aryan physics.” Jewish intellectualism and works portraying an “un-German spirit” were purged. Freud, Bertolt Brecht, Karl Marx, Franz Kafka and hundreds of modernist or expressionist artists were deemed decedent, depraved, deviant and degenerate.

Einstein and his theory of relativity represented the Jewish subversion of physics and was driven out of the academy. Only pure German thinkers and early Greek and Roman art unsullied by Jewish influence could be taught in German universities.

Such ridiculous responses to intellectual and artistic pursuits was ridiculous then and its ridiculous now. Relativity and modernism weren’t perversions of science and art anymore than CRT and African American history are undermining the United States.

Though ridiculous, these arguments work.

Fascist control of the academy absolutely serves to perpetuate nationalist propaganda and influence the citizenry to be angry and uninformed in ways that serve the fascist government.

If you know anything about history or racism, DeSantis sounds unhinged, but his plan is working. Twenty-eight university presidents have promised to stop teaching undesirable subjects.

Understanding, not belief

While DeSantis’ Stop Woke Act, which restricts race-related education in workplaces, schools and colleges, has been temporarily blocked by the courts, the governor has found a new way to restrict academic freedom in Florida’s universities.

DeSantis has asked for data on all courses involving race, and all resources spent on CRT or DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion).

He and supporters of the anti-CRT panic claim critical race theory is a “trendy” ideology that teaches people to feel guilt or shame based on their race. (It doesn’t – CRT is about systemic injustice, not individual guilt). Therefore, he justifies this attempt at fascist control in universities by claiming students need to be protected from dangerous teachings on race. (Or, really, any teaching on race, as he is also banning AP African American Studies in high school.)

Fearing that DeSantis will go through their resources with a fine-toothed comb, 28 presidents of Florida state universities and community colleges have agreeed to eliminate CRT education.

Technically, their statement regarded teaching “that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.”

Thing is, I don’t know of any concept taught in college that compels belief. Biology teachers will happily teach evolution to creationists as long as those students engage with the material in good faith and answer the questions correctly, according to evolution.

Similarly, CRT isn’t something one “believes” in.

It’s an analytical framework – a tool. I suppose if you don’t “believe” racism exists or that racism is a systemic issue, it’s unlikely you’ll agree with CRT, useful analytical framework or not.

But again – belief not required to do well in class. I’ve taught CRT in many classes and I have no idea what my students believe in at the end of the semester. I only know what they understand.

A request for data on trans healthcare at universities has also been submitted by DeSantis. It’s not clear what such information could be used for, but I think we can agree it won’t be good.

It’s so reminiscent of Nazi Germany that it’s hard to believe republicans aren’t purposefully following a Nazi playbook.

A chilling erosion

In 1919, a Jewish doctor opened the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin. Dr. Hirschfeld amassed a huge collection of books on gender and sexuality. In 1930, the first modern gender reassignment surgery was performed there. In 1933, Nazis destroyed the clinic and burned the books inside, destroying an immense amount of important research on gender non-conforming and gay people.

Hirschfeld’s likeness was reproduced in Nazi propaganda. Trans and gay people were sent to concentration camps along with Jews and Romani for the crime of polluting the Aryan race.

Anti-CRT bills targeting universities have been passed in Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Dakota and Idaho. Most of these laws prohibit requiring that students “believe” in CRT or the listed divisive concepts which shouldn’t be a problem because university professors don’t care what their students believe.

But these bills are a chilling erosion of academic freedom and a huge step toward fascist academic control in the service of right-wing narratives. While it’s still legal to teach history, remember where such efforts have led and take them seriously.

READ MORE: 'They didn’t block AP European History': WH press secretary blasts DeSantis for banning class on African American History

Nick Bostrom's perfect congruence with bigotry: How Effective Altruism buttresses the suffering of the world

Nick Bostrom is one of the most important present-day philosophers of philanthropy and charitable giving. This month he apologized for a hideously racist email he wrote back in 1995.

In doing so, he inadvertently showed that racism and philanthropy can happily coexist. He also showed that philanthropy is often deployed to buttress racism, and vice versa.

Sounding sage

READ MORE: Scholars and lawmakers are outraged over DeSantis’ rejection of AP African-American curriculum

Bostrom isn’t quite a household name. But he’s a central figure in the Effective Altruism movement, dedicated to rationalizing philanthropy.

Specifically, he’s known for his contributions to longtermism — a philosophical argument that future people are as valuable and morally important as present-day people.

He argues that we need to balance the fate of future humans in our ethical choices and philanthropy.

That sounds sage enough.

READ MORE: Russell Banks, John Brown, and the American soul

However, in practice, longtermism is obsessed with developing artificial intelligence and with bringing about a future in which countless billions and trillions of digital “people” can flourish in computer simulations.

As I’ve discussed at the Editorial Board, this quasi-religious science-fiction fantasy has led Effective Altruism groups like OpenPhilanthropy to donate more money to AI research than to eradicating malaria.

“I like that sentence”

Bostrom’s feverish speculations about the upsides and downsides of future AI have been enthusiastically endorsed by numerous self-styled thought leaders.

Elon Musk blurbed Bostrom’s 2014 book Superintelligence: “Worth reading. … We need to be supercareful with AI”.

Nate Silver did as well, claiming the book was “very deep … every paragraph has, like, six ideas embedded within it.”

Bostrom’s latest has received fewer accolades.

In early January, he learned that philosopher Émile P. Torres had discovered an ugly, racist email Bostrom had written on the Extropians listserv, a futurist forum he participated in back in the mid-1990s.

Bostrom decided to get ahead of the potential scandal by releasing the email himself, along with an apology.

The old email argues for the virtue of blunt, offensive communication. It then quickly descends into deeply vile and ugly racist bilge.

As an example of blunt communication, Bostrom writes the sentence “Blacks are more stupid than whites.” He then says, “I like that sentence and think it is true.”

He says that in his view, people who read that sentence will think he is racist, even though he is just plainly stating his own beliefs based on his reading about IQ.

He worries that people will think he is essentially using the n-word. Then he actually uses the n-word to illustrate.

Bostrom in his apology says, “I completely repudiate this disgusting email from 26 years ago.” Specifically, he says that “the invocation of a racial slur was repulsive.”

He’s right; the invocation was repulsive.

But so was the claim that Black people are less intelligent than white people. And there, Bostrom’s apology is much less straightforward.

The supposed morality

Rather than simply repudiating the racist idea that white people are smarter than Black people, Bostrom hedges.

He says he now believes “it is deeply unfair that unequal access to education, nutrients and basic healthcare leads to inequality in social outcomes, including sometimes disparities in skills and cognitive capacity.”

He also says that it’s possible that there is a biological element to cognitive differences, but that it is “not my area of expertise.”

Bostrom goes on to insist that he does not support eugenics, as it is “commonly understood.” But he can’t resist suggesting that eugenic enhancements to fetuses would be ethical and cool, and linking a bunch of his papers on the topic.

In summary, Bostrom now believes that screaming the n-word on a listserve is bad, and that discourse should be more civil.

Otherwise, he uses more civil discourse to soft-pedal the fact that he still thinks that maybe Black people are not as intelligent as white people, and is in favor of eugenic ideas that have long been associated with racism.

As part of deflecting from his actual immoral ideas, Bostrom appeals to the supposed morality of his philanthropic giving.

Perfectly congruent with bigotry

He says that his concern with environmental and health inequities which affect Black people has led him to contribute to charities “fighting exactly this problem,” including “SCI Foundation, GiveDirectly, the Black Health Alliance, the Iodine Global Network, BasicNeeds and the Christian Blind Mission.”

These organizations do valuable work. But using one’s contributions as a way to deflect or neutralize charges of racism is less admirable.

Bostrom is saying, “I give to charities that help Black people” the same way he might say “I have Black friends.”

The main difference is that “I have Black friends” at least shows that one can imagine a relationship of equality with some Black person.

Touting one’s charitable giving, in contrast, presents you as a benefactor, and suggests that Black people should be grateful for your largesse.

Bostrom points to his philanthropy to show that he does not harbor prejudice. But philanthropy is often deeply antidemocratic, and congruent with the belief that wealthy (generally white) people are best suited to make decisions for everyone else.

Émile P. Torres says that in his research on the longtermism community, he spoke to one researcher who said, in Torres’ paraphrase, that “only once he came to realize that some races are inferior to others could he muster sympathy to donate to help the global poor.”

Philanthropy is often inextricably linked to a sense of superiority and condescension, which is perfectly congruent with bigotry.

Unequal and unfit

Along those lines, now Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, writing in 2012 about the new politics of wealth, explained that super-rich donors love to give to their own pet projects — museums, symphonies, AI research — but hate being taxed to help support government services.

She warns that philanthropy “must not replace or, worse yet, usurp, public policy as formulated and implemented by our society as a whole.”

Private giving can make society more hierarchical, less democratic and less egalitarian when money is directed at the behest of the wealthy rather than in accord with democratic priorities. The conviction that wealthy people know best means that donors don’t listen to those who need money, and therefore often fail to help them.

Anthony Kalulu, a Ugandan who has spent much of his life in deep poverty, notes that less than 1 percent of development and charitable assistance goes directly to grassroots organizations in the global south.

Kalulu says that 99 percent “of antipoverty funding stays in the hands of the global development sector, which means western agencies.” Virtually none of the money reaches his impoverished region of Uganda.

Part of the problem, Kalulu says, is that western media, and western donors, tend to view Africans and people in the global South as less “legit” and innately untrustworthy.

That chimes very uncomfortably with Bostrom’s assertion — in his original 1995 email, and in his 2023 explanation — that Black people may be less intelligent than white people.

Bostrom’s philosophy and his writing are at the core of important philanthropic communities and movements. Bostrom also, in the past and currently, holds racist ideas about Black people’s intelligence.

Bostrom’s ethical commitment to imaginary digital people living in a future simulation is closely tied to his view that certain people in the present are biologically unequal and unfit.

No utopia

Effective Altruism is committed to contributing to the best, most effective charities — to using money in ways that will most powerfully help people.

But when philanthropy is focused on the preferences and the virtues of donors, without input from those affected by their donations, effectiveness, and for that matter virtue, is going to be badly skewed.

Racism is one of the most pernicious and intractable causes of suffering and inequality in the world. And a philanthropy rooted in racist ideas will not alleviate injustice and poverty.

Nor, contra Bostrom, will racist ideas lead to utopia, no matter how you run your simulation.

READ MORE: DeSantis requests course data on CRT from state colleges to prevent 'far-left woke agenda' from taking over

With maximal transparency, Joe Biden goes on offense

The Post’s editorial board (not to be confused with theEditorial Board) does not know, or pretends not to know, the difference between transparency and defensiveness. This group of highly educated, experienced and connected thinkers thinks you can’t have both.

I don’t know about you.

But to me, that’s naivete verging on pandering.

READ MORE: The radical political ideology no one talks about

No-no, even so

In yesterday’s edition, the Post’s unsigned editorial said the president really ought to have demonstrated more “regrets” last week after a new cache of government documents was discovered in his Delaware home. (The FBI conducted a 13-hour search at the behest of his attorneys.)

Joe Biden said he has “no regrets” about when he chose to inform the public about the initial batch in which some documents were marked classified. Before this year’s congressional elections, they were found, locked and secured, in a think-tank office that Biden used after leaving the White House in 2016. CBS News broke the story in early January. There’s been five rounds of discovery so far, a couple dozen documents in total. All of them date to Biden’s time as a senator or the vice president.

Even so, that’s a no-no, the Post editorial said.

READ MORE: 'Anything else?' Watch Karine Jean-Pierre smoothly slam Peter Doocy

Leaders and authority figures, it said, should “try to follow the rules and own up to their mistakes when they make them … Maximum allowable transparency is vital. Mr. Biden needs to ditch the defensiveness. Acknowledging that he has grounds for regret would be a good start.”

Un-hun.

The president must pay

Such admonitions would carry more weight had the president done the things the Post editorial admonishes him for doing – if the president had refused to try to follow the rules (“there is no evidence of intentional wrongdoing”), refused to own up to his mistakes, and refused to be transparent, legally and politically. Biden has done all three.

Yes, he’s been defensive, too. Why the hell not?

From the beginning of this episode, this country’s most lucrative media properties have equated the “Biden document scandal” with the potential crimes of Donald Trump, making Biden’s mistakes seem more criminal than they are and Trump’s unlawful actions less criminal than they are.

What incentive does Biden have for showing regret?

If there is one, it doesn’t stem from the need for accountability to the American people. If there is one, instead, it stems from the “need” for “accountability” to this country’s most lucrative media properties.

Biden’s attorneys alerted the National Archives, returned the documents fast, and collaborated, not just cooperated, with authorities. But the White House didn’t tell this country’s most lucrative media properties until this month, when it confirmed reporting on the first discovery.

For that, the president must pay.

He won’t pay

If “accountability” to this country’s most lucrative media properties is the incentive for the president to show regret, that’s no incentive at all, given the radical political ideology of this country’s most lucrative media properties. “There’s no there there,” the Biden sniffed, and he’s right.

The only there was put there.

With respect to government secrets, Trump has never been transparent. He has always been defensive. Biden has always been transparent. He has rarely been defensive, until now. Yet his country’s most lucrative media properties make both men’s actions look like pretty much the same thing.

False equivalence minimizes the president’s integrity as well as the criminal former president’s total lack of it. Biden’s “defensiveness has chipped away at the credibility of his claim that ‘people know I take classified documents and classified material seriously,’” the Post said.

“Bullshit” is what I imagine Biden saying.

Why didn’t he tell us?

Though defensive, the president has done things right.

The White House says that was the plan all along.

“With his actions,” the Associated Press reported Monday, “Biden is doing more than simply complying with federal investigators assigned to look into the discovery of the records. The president is aiming to show that, unlike Trump, he never intended to retain classified materials — a key distinction that experts say diminishes the risks of criminal liability.”

I don’t know if that was the plan all along, or if it became the plan after the documents were discovered, but the gambit appears to be working.

With maximal transparency, the president’s team appears to be taking the focus off the timing of the “document scandal” and putting it on how he’s “handling it.” The AP report: “They didn’t acknowledge the first discovery before the elections, though they swiftly notified the National Archives, returned the documents the day after they were found and coordinated subsequent searches and discoveries with the Department of Justice.”

Maximal transparency achieves something else.

It makes politics acceptable.

Why didn’t Biden reveal, before the midterms, the initial discovery of classified documents? Well, probably because Biden is a politician.

His attorneys did what they were morally and legally obligated to do. They did not do what they were not morally and legally obligated to do, namely sabotage the Democrats by revealing the news before the midterms.

That was a political decision.

One that any president is entitled to.

No need for regrets

The White House says maximal transparency was the plan all along.

I doubt it.

I suspect these documents were discovered in the process of doing something else. What that something is, however, we may never know.

But with their discovery, almost certainly, came memories of 2016 when Donald Trump and the Republicans collaborated, knowingly and not, with Russian saboteurs to destroy the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

Biden’s plan was probably not maximal transparency so much as maximal strategy in the form of finding all the documents that Biden misplaced during his time as vice president, getting them out there, and mounting a dog-and-pony stage performance about working with a special counsel.

That does more than neutralize their liability.

That allows Biden to defend himself against the radical political ideology of this country’s most lucrative media properties. They want to be in “the center” of democratic politics. So they put Biden and Trump on even ground. There is no there there, Biden said. So a there was put there.

By saying that he has no regrets, however, he’s saying to this country’s most lucrative media properties, move over. I am the center, not you.

In the center, he can be transparent and defensive.

No need for regrets.

READ MORE: House Republican fact-checked after calling President Joe Biden 'a serial classified document hoarder'

The radical political ideology no one talks about

Why do this country’s most lucrative media properties spend so much time and so many resources covering the “dangers” of political extremism?

It’s not because of the fear of Donald Trump and his redhat fascism.

It’s not because of the fear of Bernie Sanders and his cosplay socialism.

READ MORE: Donald Trump's griping about evangelical 'disloyalty' was an order to get in line

It’s because political extremes reveal something about this country’s most lucrative media properties that they would rather not have revealed.

Their own political extremism.

None the wiser

Bullsh*t? Not when you think about it.

READ MORE: Unpublished January 6th report exposes social media platforms allowing right-wing exploitation

The difference between the country’s two major political parties is cavernous, deeper and wider than it has ever been in our lifetimes.

The Democrats, as I said last week, have grown to become under Joe Biden the party of statecraft. The Republicans have grown to become under Trump the party of stagecraft. The Democrats have ideas. The GOP has Fox.

Yet this country’s most lucrative media properties, in their coverage of the parties and in their choices in determining what’s news, treat the parties, which they take to represent one-half each of this country, as if they were equal in nature, theory and practice, though the differences are obvious.

Taking two things that are not the same in nature, theory and practice and making them appear the same is an act of democratic politics, a way of persuading an audience to believe that a particular worldview (“centrism”) is normal by comparison to parties equal in nature, theory and practice.

Taking two things that are not the same and making them appear the same is an act of political extremism, too. There is no other credible way to describe taking two things that are not the same and making them appear the same for the purpose of manufacturing, by comparison, an imaginary “center”?

How else can we describe this country’s most lucrative media properties presenting themselves as impartial arbiters of the status quo despite the fact that they go to extreme lengths to persuade their audiences that a particular worldview (theirs) is normal, moderate and “centrist.”

That’s what an act of politics looks like.

That’s what a warped reality, and our understanding of it, looks like.

This country’s most lucrative media properties do not want to appear to be political entities, but nevertheless, they are. They are invested in defining, controlling, protecting, defending and maintaining a political status quo that has made them this country’s most lucrative media properties.

So they focus on the far right.

They focus on the far left

You’re none the wiser.

“The way things are” is never natural

My point here is that “centrism” is actually a radical political ideology that often turns observable reality upside down, backward and prolapsed.

It does that by making unequal things seem equal for the purpose of appearing to be normal, moderate and “centrist.” One consequence is that the “political center” overlaps with their particular kind of extreme politics.

And “natural.”

The people who benefit most from the maintenance and advancement of “centrism” – the beneficiaries of hierarchies of political and social power that constitute a status quo – want us to believe that their radical political ideology is a product of nature. It’s the politics of “the way things are.”

“The way things are” is never natural.

“The way things are” is the product of history, contingency and choice. It’s the progressive accretion of decisions made for a particular time, for a particular place for reasons particular to those times and places.

The people who benefit most from the maintenance and advancement of “centrism” want us to believe “the ways things are” is natural and therefore politically neutral, as a consequence of being just “the way things are.”

But “the way things are” is never politically neutral. The proof is the insistence by the beneficiaries of a radical political ideology called “centrism” that the way things are is just “the way things are.”

Beneficial incoherence

My second point here is that an observable reality that’s been turned upside down, backward and prolapsed is beneficial to those who maintain and advance a radical political ideology that they call “the way things are.”

An incoherent status quo is a good thing.

As I said last week, in a separate context, false equivalence is the art of forcing unequal things to seem equal and making the morally better of the two seem not so good, the morally worse of the two seem not so bad.

Those people who benefit most from the status quo are most likely to insist that politics has nothing to do with their being the people who benefit most from the status quo. That, again, is a political act, a choice made among other choices that together constitute what most say is the way things are.

Apply this to Joe Biden’s documents “scandal.”

It is not equal to Donald Trump’s documents scandal.

The former lost some government secrets, found them, returned them and conceded to an official investigation to ensure everything’s above board.

The latter stole government secrets, lied about stealing them, refused to give them back after his theft was revealed, gave back a few, lied about giving back all, had to be forced to give back all, and then cried about the injustice of an official investigation to ensure everything’s above board.

Apply this to shooting massacres.

At least 10 people were shot to pieces during the Chinese Lunar holiday in a Chinese-American neighborhood in Los Angeles County. It is among many shooting massacres targeting minorities. In Charleston, it was Black people. In El Paso, it was Hispanics. In Pittsburgh, it was Jews. In Colorado, it was LGBT-plus people. The pattern is clear to anyone who’s willing to see it.

But this country’s most lucrative media properties don’t want to.

They regularly find ways to balance mass death with constitutional rights, as if one is related to the other, as if one is as important as the other, as if one balances out the other, as if this country’s most lucrative media properties are politically neutral arbiters of a status quo that is also ideally suited to rationalizing this country’s most lucrative media properties.

Mass death is not equal to constitutional rights. Only an adherent of a radical political ideology would say two unequal things are “in fact” equal.

And here we are.

Apply this to any “issue” with “two sides.”

USA Today’s Michael Collins: “Biden said he was ‘surprised’ to learn of the discovery of the records. He had branded his predecessor … ‘irresponsible’ for storing classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.”

The stress is mine.

The radical political ideology, however, is theirs.

READ MORE: 'Asinine': Conservative lawyer shreds Republicans for equating Donald Trump and Joe Biden document cases

Why tearing down the gender dam benefits everybody

Ira Chernus: Tear Down the Gender Dam

In all these years, one of the good things about TomDispatch for me is that it’s so often proved a learning experience. Today is a perfect example. Longtime TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus, who last wrote for this site five-and-a-half years ago, returns from retirement to discuss his drag-queen son and our growing world of gender-blending. On this subject, let me not act knowledgeable. I’m anything but “woke.” I’m an old guy and an editor who’s found himself stumbling over the very idea of a single person being “they.”

Normally, the sort of binary opposition I’ve dealt with and opposed at this website has been the urge of our government officials to consider those they don’t care for as a full-scale “them,” nothing but an enemy to fight. (If you want to know what I mean, just check out Michael Klare’s most recent piece on the Pentagon and China.) But the truth is that, even at my age, it’s a good thing to encounter those who, dealing with binary oppositions of quite a different sort, relating to the possibilities that exist in all of us, have the urge to meld them.

Honestly, in my youth in the 1950s and 1960s, things were all too painfully binary and, thinking back, I never felt comfortable with it. The caricatured and aggressive maleness of the planet I then found myself on always put me off, especially when I encountered it as a college student at Yale (not exactly my favorite experience in life). Looking back, I don’t think I ever felt even slightly comfortable as one of thosemen, even though at the time I never truly imagined alternatives either.

Still, one of my close friends at college was gay — he would later die of AIDS — and that, at least, was eye-opening for me. So, given my life, given what’s mattered to me, and having now spent time with Chernus’s piece, I feel I should indeed open myself more to the way young people are questioning the binary nature of our world and exploring the true complexity of us all. Let him introduce you to his experience of it and see what you think. Tom

Who Will Speak Up for My Child, the Drag Queen? And the Non-Binary and Transgender Folks Among Us, Too

What makes a good society? Is it a guaranteed right to pursue happiness, as our Declaration of Independence proclaimed? Perhaps, as Gandhi said, it’s providing the poorest and most vulnerable among us with the means to control their own lives. But what happens when it’s the pursuit of happiness that makes someone most vulnerable?

Let me introduce you to my child, my one and only. They — and, no, it wasn’t as hard as I expected to get used to the gender-neutral plural pronoun that they prefer — are brown-skinned, Mexican-American, secular-Jewish, and gay-married. In a country where Donald Trump is still admired by some 40% of the public, don’t imagine for a second that my child, with all those identities, isn’t horrifyingly vulnerable.

Lately, however, the Trumpian movement (with the full support of the future president’s assumed Republican opponent in 2024, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis) has targeted its most intense hatred on another part of my child’s identity. They are a gender-non-binary (and highly successful) drag queen, bringing happiness not only to themselves but to their cheering audiences. That’s where their right to the pursuit of happiness is most threatened at the moment and what makes them most vulnerable.

My child has been safe from attack — so far. Others haven’t been so fortunate. The murderous shootings at a drag club in my home state of Colorado are just the most notorious in a string of hate crimes directed at drag shows. More than 120 of them reportedly experienced protests, were threatened, or even attacked in 2022. Some transgender folks have come to believe that it’s no longer safe to live in this country. Others are thinking they might be better off taking leave of life itself.

In such a world, what’s a proud, concerned, on-the-edge-of-frightened father to do? For me, a first step is to come out of retirement and try to write some helpful words.

It would be easy to simply denounce the spread of right-wing bigotry as misinformed, misguided, and unjust, but what good would that do? Right-wingers live in a Fox News-mediated world of their own, where their bigotry seems to make perfectly good sense to them, while otherwise reasonable arguments fall on deaf ears.

So I want to write for a different audience. I’m inspired by the words Martin Luther King, Jr., penned while sitting in a Birmingham jail. “The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” was not, he said, the out-and-out racist. It was “the white moderate, more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Of course, there are big differences between the Jim Crow South of his day and the gender-identity-biased world of today. Still, I’ve talked to people who would never countenance discrimination, much less violence, against any minority, yet offer, at best, the most lukewarm acceptance of drag queens, non-binary, or transgender folks. They tell me they aren’t quite sure how they feel about such people. Some admit to just not being comfortable going to a drag show and finding themselves surprisingly unnerved around anyone who claims to be transgender.

Often, their understanding of what’s going on in our world couldn’t be shallower. They may even refer to my child as transgender because they haven’t grasped the difference between that and non-binary. To put it all too briefly: a transgender person has a specific gender identity different from the sex assigned them at birth; a non-binary person doesn’t identify exclusively as male or female, but as both, neither, or some combination of the two. Acquaintances who do know the difference have said to me that it’s still not clear to them what category my beloved drag queen fits into. (In fact, drag queens come with all kinds of gender identities.)

Since many people of good will remain uncertain and confused on issues like these, they don’t raise their voices to protest such discrimination. To my mind, that hesitation holds the key to understanding the problem in a basic way — and also to reducing discrimination and violence, and so moving this society in a more just direction.

Reinforcing the Wall of Gender Separation

Why are many thoughtful, well-educated people so ready to lump drag queens, non-binary, and transgender people in a single rejectable category? I suspect it’s much the same reason that leads to attacks on all three from the bigoted right and the same reason media stories often lump all three together: they all challenge the traditional division of humanity into two simple categories, male and female. They seem to blur that line or even dissolve it. Think of them, then, as gender-blenders. And because of that, they threaten our sense of social order, which, as King pointed out, may be more important than justice, even to many well-meaning people.

In my professional field as an academic, the study of religion, we have often explored how people create order in their lives by translating the world into sets of binary opposites with firm values attached: up is better than down; God is better than the devil; our God is better than their devil; we are better than them. Religion is often remarkably devoted to shoring up the boundary lines that keep those opposites apart.

These days, scholars are more likely to stress the ways that religion can actually help people blur and cross boundaries, because most of us grasp the danger of maintaining a separation between categories that naturally blur in the real world. Doing so is a first step down the slippery slope to creating ever more extreme hierarchies, which all too often end in injustice, oppression, and violence. The quest for order, in other words, has a way of transforming itself into a license to suppress or even ultimately eliminate “those people” on the other side of the line.

One recent analyst of the right wing’s hatred of gender-blenders, Nathan Robinson, explains that it comes from “a visceral distaste for that which is different.” And behind that distaste lies “a devotion to traditional hierarchies.” Trumpublicans hope, writes Amanda Marcotte, “that they can return men to some imaginary glory days when the line between the genders was thick and inflexible, and women’s role was unquestionably that of subservience to men… If people start questioning what gender even means, then the whole right-wing system of power allocation begins to crumble.”

To paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is about a bigot that does love a wall, whether it’s between Mexico and the U.S. or men and women. How appropriate, then, that the legendary beginning of the gay rights movement in this country was a 1969 police raid on a gay bar named the Stonewall Inn. Consider it an irony, then, that there is now a growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, in part because they are seen as maintaining (or even reinforcing) the clear difference between male and female.

Despite the bill Florida Governor DeSantis passed — dubbed by its opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — the reactionary right-wing has largely lost the battle against gay and lesbian rights and is now turning to a more popular target: those who blur, or even dissolve, that gender boundary. And the bigots fight all the more fiercely because they’re not just defending a particular boundary, but the very existence of social demarcation itself.

Today, the appropriate metaphor for it may not be a wall at all, but a dam. Martin Luther King put it aptly so long ago, indicting those “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” because order without justice is a “dangerously structured dam that blocks the flow of social progress.” And a New York City politician proved King’s point all too well recently. Condemning schools and libraries that bring in drag queens to read books to children, that Republican (after mouthing the usual, totally unfounded charge of “sexual grooming”) revealed her deepest source of anger — that it’s “a program teaching little children about their gender fluidity.”

Fluids, of course, may dissolve whatever they touch, whatever kinds of boundaries we create to give us a sense of social order. If so, the satisfaction we get from believing those lines to be immutable will begin to dissolve, too. Hence, the fierce desire to attack “gender fluidity.”

There surely is a big difference between the right-wingers who actively hate gender-blenders and the moderates or liberals who offer lukewarm acceptance and shallow understanding. The latter earn the title “people of good will” because they’re not seized by the urge to maintain boundaries or strengthen hierarchies that give them power and control over others. They won’t, in other words, actively demand unjust laws and policies.

But neither will they take a strong stand for justice, because those binary categories and boundaries still offer them a sense of order in their own lives. Somewhere, somehow, they want our fast-changing world to remain stable, simple, and familiar. As a result, they do share with the bigots, though obviously to a lesser degree, discomfort at seeing that classic boundary between male and female, which used to feel so immutable, disappear before their very eyes.

If we look in the mirror honestly enough, we’re likely to recognize that all of us have some boundary lines that are truly important to us, even if it’s only “us well-meaning liberals against those nasty Trumpsters.” Each of us has our own bottom line, the place where the blurring of lines does indeed become disturbing or even intolerable.

For a lot of people, however unconsciously, the distinction between male and female may be the hardest one of all to surrender. No wonder, then, that even people of good will regularly offer only lukewarm acceptance and shallow understanding to their fellow Americans who are gender-blenders.

Tear Down the Dam, It’s Good for Us All

Make no mistake, though. Those same people of good will may hold the key to freeing the gender-blenders from oppression and violence, if they can be roused to active support.

Every successful movement for social change needs just such a broad base of support. That’s why Dr. King called those lukewarm white moderates the great stumbling block to his own movement’s success. Doug McAdam, a prominent scholar of the civil rights movement, notes that it had to “compel supportive intervention by liberal northern allies… to the point where sympathetic media coverage and broad public support for the movement could be mobilized.” He quotes famed civil rights leader Bob Moses: “When the interest of the country is awakened, the government responds to that issue.”

America’s laws now demand that schools, parks, restaurants, and the like be open to all. Even virulent racists no longer call for those laws to be repealed. That’s because things do indeed become unthinkable once a large enough chunk of the public views them that way. Just as no one talks openly about reinstituting Jim Crow laws anymore, nobody urges that the vote be taken away from women either.

How can we make the right of gender-blenders simply to be who they are an equally unquestionable part of American society? Perhaps the key is to persuade well-meaning but confused and hesitant Americans not merely to tolerate them, or even simply to speak out for their safety or rights, but to appreciate how they actually enrich life for us all.

How we treat the most marginal and vulnerable among us determines the quality of life for the rest of us, too. A good society takes care of the most vulnerable by assuring their safety and the means to sustain their lives, along with their liberty to choose their own unique paths in pursuing happiness. If some find happiness by blending familiar categories, or even erasing the lines between them totally, supporting their choice could make a better society for us all.

The famed poet Walt Whitman suggested that there are “two main constituents for a truly grand nationality: first, a large variety of character, and second, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.”

Gender-blenders serve us by bringing us closer to that ideal. They are a model for a truly free society where we don’t feel compelled to fit ourselves into narrow binary categories, where everyone can accept themselves and explore who they really are, safely and without shame.

If the gender-blenders are provocative, all the better. Then they’ll provoke us to think and talk more freely about individuality, acceptance, and true community. Why wouldn’t we want them teaching our children? Even a 10-year-old can see that drag performers are “the most encouraging thing ever.” Openly non-binary and transgender people can be similarly encouraging.

Just to speak for myself, I’m so proud of my child, and the many thousands like them, claiming and proclaiming their right to pursue happiness by tearing down the old gender walls. To me, they — and in this case I mean all of them — are heroes because, as Whitman put it, they “walk at their ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits them not.

I will be equally proud of my country when enough of us stand up strongly for the right to, and value of, gender fluidity — so strongly that this innocent and socially constructive pursuit of happiness will never make anyone vulnerable again.

George Santos is living the GOP's values

“Too bad George Santos is not a drag queen. Might be the only way Republicans would express outrage and demand his ouster,” quipped dissident Republican pundit Ana Navarro on Twitter last month.

Navarro’s theory was put to the test last week when RuPaul of Brazil revealed that Santos was once a mediocre drag queen known as Kitara Ravache. Santos flatly denied having performed in drag, but the gig is up.

A newly surfaced video shows Santos, clad in a black dress, claiming to perform in various Rio drag clubs. When Rubert Murdoch’s New York Post drops the pretense that the person in that footage is anyone other than George Santos, the gig is up.

READ MORE: Majority of NY voters want George Santos to resign: poll

Research the GOP can get behind

You might think these revelations would be inconvenient for Santos, given that the Republicans have spent months demonizing the noble art of drag and falsely claiming that drag performance is the grooming phase of child abuse. You’d be wrong.

With a five-vote majority in the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy is willing to take support wherever he can find it, even from someone who reportedly admitted to stealing checks from an elderly man. Santos has racked up so many victims that they’ve created a group chat just to commiserate. But a vote’s a vote. McCarthy even gave Santos two committee assignments.

Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene welcomed the young legislator in her love language, a bizarre conspiracy-laced Twitter rant. Greene is an anti-drag queen demagogue who recently called a state senator a “groomer” for correctly labeling her rhetoric as homophobic. Last year, Greene targeted one of her own constituents, baselessly insinuating to her million-plus social media followers that the 22-year-old drag performer was a sexual predator.

Santos was spotted chatting amiably with Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, who stands credibly accused of paying a 17-year-old for sex, but who slanders drag queens as sexualizers of children. Santos was also welcomed on the podcast of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who is facing fraud charges in New York for allegedly bilking a charity.

READ MORE: 'Maybe they couldn’t verify his identity': Santos mocked after Twitter appears to suspend his official gov account

Greene and her allies will either pretend to believe Santos’ ridiculous denial and attack Democrats. Or they’ll come up with some strained excuse for why the streets of Rio are different from a Drag Queen Story Hour, and attack Democrats.

The core brand of the Republican Party is trolling, and attention is its only currency. The far-right likes that Santos is under federal, local and congressional investigation. He’s on the Science committee, but mostly he’s testing the limits of what a congressman can get away with. That’s research the GOP can get behind.

Leaning into the absurdity

It thrills the right that Santos allegedly let a homeless veteran’s dog die in order to skim funds from his fake charity. They love that he pretended to be Jewish and falsely claimed his mom was killed on 9/11. Liberals hate that sort of thing, so by embracing Santos, the Republicans are owning libs.

It’s ridiculous that Santos attended the Stop the Steal rally wearing a $500 designer scarf that he’d allegedly stolen from his roommate, that he was mixed up in a Ponzi scheme, that his campaign finances stink, that he has so many victims they’ve formed an informal support group.

And the GOP is leaning into the absurdity.

It makes the government seem like a joke, and that suits Republicans just fine. These antics make ordinary people disengage from the work of politics, even as they watch the cheap spectacle unfold on their phones.

It’s tempting to assume that the Republicans are compromising their ethics in pursuit of power, but that’s a mistake.

They are living their values, and their top value is that the elite can do whatever they want.

Just ask Donald Trump, who once “motor-boated” Rudy Giuliani.

The fundamental question is whether we want a society where everyone can express themselves and have fun, or whether that freedom’s an exclusive perk.

READ MORE: 'Be a man': A 9/11 first responder explains how Kevin McCarthy 'can fix' the House GOP George Santos debacle

The plague of social isolation

There is very little to recommend my old gym, other than the low monthly fee, where I worked out nearly every day from 2007 until the pandemic shut it down. The locker rooms were grimy with moldering carpets. There were brown rings around the basins and a thin blackish layer of slime, composed, I suspect, of dead skin, urine, hair, dust, dirt and assorted bacteria on the floor of the shower stalls. To step into the slime without flip flops was to take home athlete’s foot and toenail fungus, at the very least. The sauna in the locker room was reportedly listed on a gay pick-up app and attracted pairs of men looking for anonymous sexual encounters in clouds of steam. The gym management first tried to combat these liaisons by posting a sign on the door that read: “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO HAVE SEX IN THE SAUNA.” When this failed to slow the traffic in and out of the sauna, the door was removed and the sauna shut down. Robberies occurred in the early afternoon when the gym was nearly empty. One man would stand by the entrance of the locker room as a lookout while another quickly pried the hinges off the flimsy lockers and pocketed the wallets. The management was unsympathetic. They had posted signs not to leave valuables in the lockers. Theft was our problem.

The treadmills, stationary bikes and ellipticals would break down and be blocked off for weeks with a chain and sign that read: “Out of Service.” The weight room, located in the windowless basement, is where I spent most of my time. And this is where the only redeeming feature of the gym could be found — the community of regulars who, month after month, year after year, embedded themselves into my life. It’s true that none of us wanted to pay the exorbitant fees to join the fancy gyms, but we also found comfort in the familiarity of each other’s company. We were united not by politics, class, status, education or profession but by working out. I lifted with two men my age: John, who had played in the NFL for the Jets and the Colts, and Marc, who had played college basketball. As former competitive athletes, we accepted that our workouts at this stage were managed decay, but there was something reassuring about this dogged determination not to resign ourselves to decrepitude. Besides, when uttered by John or Marc in the weight room, the most banal advice and information became a revealed truth, frustrating my wife Eunice, who had often said the same thing months — or years — earlier.

Among our small band of regulars was Robert, a hairstylist who kept in shape, he said, because his boyfriend was older, and he was “the trophy wife.” Robert showed off his 30-inch waist and sleek, toned physique. One Halloween, he and his boyfriend went on a gay cruise where his costume was a thong and a feathered Native American war bonnet. “I looked fabulous,” he informed us. There was also a professional wrestler who was on the circuit in smaller cities like Wilmington and whose stage name was “The Mighty Vesuvius”; a deeply traumatized Iraq war vet whom we all kept at a distance and who once threatened a trainer who subsequently walked out of the gym and never returned; a police officer; a former Wall Street commodities trader who supported the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); Camillo, who had been a professional heavyweight boxer in Italy and who owned the restaurant next door to the gym; and my friend Boris who had once been homeless on the streets of Trenton, read Fyodor Dostoevsky in the original Russian and, while he held down a job, was attending Rutgers University part time to become a social worker. One afternoon, Camillo and I decided we would rekindle the glories of our boxing days by hammering the heavy bag without wearing the cotton wraps boxers coil around their hands before putting on gloves. This impulsive act of machismo left us with sprained wrists — not good for a cook or a writer.

Because you could join the gym for as low as $36 a month, the locker room served as a public bathroom and shower facility for undocumented workers and the unhoused. One portly man, who lived out of his car, came every morning to shave and shower. He cheerily subscribed to every bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory and held forth about them to anyone willing to listen. Where is he now? Has he found another community where he is accepted with all his quirks, where he can shower and shave, or has he been, like so many, cast completely adrift? He was already living on the edge of catastrophe.

The gym was run by a crime syndicate called the New York Sports Club. These business school wizards had perfected every technique for ripping off the lawyerless proletariat. None of their scams would have worked at the high-priced gyms, the ones with spas, swimming pools, immaculate locker rooms, plush towels, masseuses and fresh juice bars, which charged over $100 a month. The members of these high-end gyms could hire attorneys. The syndicate determined, correctly, that most of us were defenseless. They were very creative in dreaming up ways to fleece us. They signed up members promising a low monthly fee and then, once they had the credit card on file, raised the fee without notice. This increase could be reversed if you showed up at the manager’s office with your contract, but most people did not discover the increase for a few months. No one got refunds. When ordered to shut down their chain of gyms at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the syndicate continued to charge monthly dues to members and ignored cancellation requests. This January, the New York Attorney General Letitia James ordered the New York Sports Club to pay $110 to eligible club members who filed a complaint in New York after being ripped off by the chain.

Gyms do not make their money from people who regularly attend. They make their money from personal training sessions and those who purchase memberships, come for a week or two as part of a New Year’s resolution or because they need to lose weight and get exercise, and then disappear. These ghost members retain their membership, probably out of guilt, with the vague notion of going back. Our gym had 2,000 members. Only 50 of us went daily.

There were often frustrated members at the front desk asking to revoke their membership, only to be told it was not within the authority of anyone at the front desk to deal with that issue. This had to be done through a customer service line where it was nearly impossible to speak to a human being. When you finally did get through to cancel, you had to pay for the next two months before termination kicked in. I fell for one of the syndicate’s more ingenious scams. They promised, promised, promised that if an existing member paid $800, the price of the monthly membership would be locked in for life. A year later, they raised rates and told us the locked-in-for-life rate was no longer valid. When you are constantly on the receiving end of predatory corporate abuse, it is easy to understand the hatred for the politically correct, educated, privileged ruling class.

The only time we managed to strike back was when the syndicate decreed that the gym’s towel service would be abolished. This led to wholesale pilfering of the towel stock. I still have a few of these towels, which are incapable of wrapping around even a very thin torso and have the texture of sandpaper. I use them to clean the muddy paws of our dog.

A club manager or sales assistant usually lasted no more than six months in the job. This is because they were given high membership quotas they had to achieve every month. Once they had signed up their family, friends and former co-workers, once they had run out of new prospects, they were sent packing. One manager, who wore stiletto heels to the gym, hung on a bit longer by transferring lists of new members recruited by her sales staff to fulfill her own quota. I saw cashiered sales staff, whose new memberships had been appropriated by the manager, in tears. This manager mounted the only serious campaign to clean the gym, even giving the cleaning staff, who also rarely lasted more than a couple of months, toothbrushes to get the dirt out of the crevices of the exercise equipment. But then she too vanished. The gym fell back into its habitual state of filth and decay.

Today, the gym is gone. We had no advance notice. Trucks came and took away the equipment. Camillo’s restaurant closed and has not reopened. The deli across from the gym, owned by Bill, a former Marine and former professional kickboxer, where I would grab a coffee and chat with the staff in Spanish, before I worked out , is shuttered. Bleakness.

These ecosystems knit the social bonds that ground us to a community. They give us a sense of place, identity and worth. The economic dislocation of the past few decades, aggravated by the pandemic, have weakened or severed these bonds, leaving us disconnected, atomized, trapped in a debilitating anomie that fosters rage, despair, loneliness and fuels the epidemic of substance abuse, depression and suicidal ideation. Estranged from society, we become estranged from ourselves. This social isolation, exacerbated by social media, is a plague, leaving the vulnerable prey to groups and demagogues that promise a sense of belonging and purpose in return for loyalty to a dogmatic political or religious ideology. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness,” Hannah Arendt writes, “but his isolation and lack of normal social relations.” Social isolation is the lifeblood of totalitarian movements. There are many things I fear about the future, but this unmooring is one of the most ominous.

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