Monday, February 24, 2020

What Time Is It?

Bill Connolly, author, Climate Machines, Fascist Drives, and Truth (2019)

In October of 2017 I published a short book probing the rising danger of a new Fascism in America; it also sought to explain how the long neglect of working class grievances by the moderate wing of the Democratic Party helped pave the way for Trump and why so many moderate Democrats in the party, the media, and the academy missed the severity of the danger until after the revolt was well underway.
    Let me quote from one page in that book, as it identified numerous pressure points at that moment that could turn in this or that direction over the next couple of years:
...we now face a possibility that may either be transcended or morph into a distinctive brand of American fascism irreducible to its predecessors. It would accelerate institutional racism, immigration bans, deportation drives, misogyny, selective police ruthlessness, the hegemony of one wing of Christianity, and military bravado while practicing a mode of climate denialism that its predecessors never had to ponder. It would allow vigliante violence against vulnerable groups while maintaining a thin veil of deniability... A new fascism would retain competitive party elections while accelerating a host of state and federal practices that discourage poor minorities from getting to the polls, as it draws untrammeled and anonymous campaign expenditures from the filty rich...The regime would collude with foreign powers to manipulate elections and smear its opponents while plugging other "leaks" in the ruling bureaucracy itself. It would retain a privately owned media while cajoling voices critical of the regime and seeking to bury the remaining critical voices under its own Fox News, twitter and blog initiatives. It would make even more right wing court appointments to insulate its violences, intimidations, corruptions, collusions and surveillances from effective legal action. It would escalate controls over schools and universities already underway. It would give into the standing temptation to mimic the Reichstag event in vindicate new steps to mass moblization and selective oppression. It would intensify the drive to bring intelligence and police agencies under control... It would extend the neoliberal drive to entangle finance and corporate capital with state modes of subsidy, support and collusion. And it would strive to keep its base mobilized through the endless multiplication of Big Lies, distractions and carefully circulated rumors to keep the defenders of democracy off balance. The latter would include.. disinformation in blog, speeches and twitter feeds..and drawing kompromat more intimately into the nerves of American politics. It would institute a series of disruptive acts to disable criticism of these tendencies...
So where are we now? Well, racist and anti-imigration strategies have escalated. White Nationalism is growing. (Did you note Trump's critique of the Academy Award for "Parasite", a film by a South Korean Director set in South Korea, and his public nostalgia for "Gone With The Wind", a film set in the South during the Civil War? ) Fox News, right wing blogs, twitter campaigns, and Fascist Trump diatribes intensify weekly. As others who have studied leaders who seek to be tyrants have said, never assume the extreme statements are mere rhetoric. They announce plans and intentions.
Illustration: Paul Hoppe
Mid-level appointees in the State Department, Justice Department, FBI and Intelligence Agencies are squeezed by Trump increasingly every week, cowing many and translating their replacements into minions to demean rivals and protect him. Disinformation machines.
   The lower courts are shaky, as McConnell continues to flood the court system with right wing appointments. And the consolidation of a right wing majority on the Supreme Court is ominous.
The Republican defeat of Impeachment charges against Trump by Democrats in the House-- after he pressed Ukraine to intervene in the U.S. election on his behalf--has shown that Republican Party leaders are not really cowed by the President. Rather most are eager supporters of his practices. And more recent assaults by Republicans in the House against Intelligence officials who told them that Putin is again invading the 2020 election on Trump's behalf shows the same thing. Republicans are part of the Trump offense team, so no knowledgeable observers should be surprised when the effect of new Intelligence report led Trump to fire the Acting Head of Intelligence rather than instigating policies by him and other Republicans to fend off the next Russian election attack.
William Barr has profoundly corrupted the Justice Department, first, "summarizing" the Mueller report before slow releasing it to confuse an inattentive public, second, investigating the origins of the FBI investigations into Russian/Trump connections rather than continuing the investigations, third, refusing to forward a whistleblower report until the hero had to take action into his own hands, and fourth, quietly intervening in prosecution cases to impede legal investigations and conviction of Trump cronies and to promote investigation of his critics and opponents. Unrecorded meetings between Putin and Trump remain secret, even as Putin and Trump collude to shape the next American election.
Trump parades a host of autocrats and dictators before the public, promoting an atmosphere which encourages the exercise of autocracy here. Indeed, his public tweets attacking court decisions, actions in his own bureaucracy, etc., are not tactical mistakes, as some of his apologists assert. They are designed to warn every potential critic that he has the means and the intention to go after them if they protest. Tweets, fascist rallies, and constant helicopter simulations of press conferences simultaneously express his rage and enact his long term strategy. Each move is designed to promote despair among defenders of democracy and to fill the most ardent supporters with disinformation they love to disseminate. 
One sad symptom of the current condition is how too many academics continue to call Trump a "populist", thereby underplaying the real grievances of the working class he has captured, underestimating the extreme danger he poses to democracy, bypassing the powerful role of affective contagion in sustaining the Trump movement, and refusing to engage how a recent history of soft neoliberalism by many leaders of the Democratic Party helped to pave the way for the Trump revolt in the first place.
   The populist label is thus doubly mistaken, since in its application to the Left it misrepresents the depth of the unattended grievances of many who have now been captured by Trump and in its application to the Right it underplays the depth of the threat Trump poses to democracy. The anti-populist gang in the muddled middle still think that a return to old "guardrails" will suffice, even though Trump actually came to power when several of those guardrails were in place. They did not stop him then and they do not suffice to stop him now, or a successor in the future. The moderates will probably now try to prop up the neoliberal Bloomberg as their new candidate, repeating the errors that promoted the Trump movement revolt.
Similarly, while the pluri-populist Left must support and protect the independence of valiant news outlets such as MSNBC and CNN, it is way past time for the latter to curtail the legal and constitutional analyses of what is happening. They need to give much more time to the pluri-populist Left to explain what is happening and what to do about it. We warned of these dangers when moderates and legalists were still reading judicial opinions and telling us to allow the legal system to correct everything. And we rejected Barr at the outset when many legalists told us that he would probably be a responsible Attorney General. They fell for his rhetoric. It takes activist politics to support the rule of law, not mere discussions of legal precedent. The legalists were way too optimistic in telling us how the Law would prevail once the Mueller Report was published, too; they were also simplistic in focusing their analyses of the Impeachment trial on constitutional issues.
Trump is a lawless autocrat who rides over and slides under the law every time he can. And he then enacts policies and makes laws to punish his adversaries. His core supporters admire this and provide cover for it. Any moderate analysts still "surprised'' by his autocratic approach are out of touch. For instance, do Republicans and Bill Barr actually support a strong or sovereign Presidency, as they say and critical-legalist newscasters have often reported recently? No. They advance such a doctrine ONLY when a right wing Republican President is in power. Did you hear juridical thugs such as Dershowitz or Barr espouse that view when Clinton or Obama was President? No. Will they embrace it if Bernie becomes President? No. They are frauds. Using this story line to divert attention from their commitments to autocracy and support of a lawless President.
What is to be done? First if Trump instigates a new Reichstag event when he falls behind in the election we must take to the streets, stopping all business as usual. But he may, rather, crawl around like a python, squeezing his institutional prey rhythmically, letting up for a moment now and tightening again then. He has become adept at gradually tightening and extending his regime of corruption, intimidation and alignment with other autocrats. So, we must give active and whole hearted support to Left populists and pluralists such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as they press for rapid reduction of inequality, health care for all, and radical policies to come to terms with the climate crisis before it is too late. As things stand now, and as I argue in Climate Machines and Fascist Drives..,Trump translates immigration flows and other effects amplified by an escalating climate crisis into support for a new fascism, as he labels climate change a hoax.
Another thing about Left pluri-populist movements is that they mobilize protest groups, draw new constituencies into the fray, and inspire voting among younger citizens. During a time when Trump works to discourage and intimidate activism, pluri-populist movements are more essential to democracy than ever. The participants in them grasp the urgency of the situation. They can tell time.
To support a moderate Democrat today, then, means treading water as the new fascist flood deepens and widens. Moderates lag behind in discerning what we and they are up against on several intercoded fronts. They continue to be "shocked" every other day. They feel they are risk averse when in fact they persistently underrate two of the biggest risks staring them in the face: fascism and galloping climate change. A third is nuclear holocaust. 
The Senate's defeat of the Impeachment trial emboldened Trump to squeeze the screws tighter. A 2020 election victory for him--which is very possible given the structure of the electoral college, Putin's concerted campaign on his behalf, white triumphalism, the rampage of climate denialism, and Republican voter suppression--would pull away the last major restraint democratic citizens exercise over him. The others are either gone or slipping away. There is indeed a real danger that Trump will refuse to step down if he loses a close election. Much of his rhetoric is designed to prepare supporters at his rallies for that eventuality. We most definitely must take to the streets and close things down in that event. You certainly can't count on the Supreme Court. The Bush/Gore case taught that lesson.
What time is it? If it was 8:00 pm in October of 2017, it is 11:40 pm now. Midnight means consolidation of a new fascism. Some moderates, realists, and pragmatists will find such a finding to exaggerate, I am sure; but they have said that with respect to every such warning over the last several years. The vice continues to tighten. The crisis is now. 

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

*Special thanks to Bonnie Honig, Derek Denman, Jairus Grove, John Buell and Tom Dumm for feedback on this piece.
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Thursday, November 28, 2019

Deportation Discipline

Kathy Ferguson
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

The Trump administration is again rounding up immigrants, this time hundreds of foreign students at a fake university created by ICE to follow the more than one hundred and fifty thousand undocumented immigrants captured and separated for deportation or interminable detention. Some children are being placed in homes where their parents will never find them again. Over the summer, threats were made in advance, postponed, and resumed without warning in places like Mississippi. Will there be more threats? More postponements? More raids? Or will we simply continue the ordinary terrifying administrative nightmare that is U.S. immigration policy, perhaps punctuated by the cruel banality of made-for-TV strikes on frightened people by heavily-armed Immigration and Custom Enforce (ICE) officials.
Either way, rounding up families for deportation is not new in the United States. The panic of lives ripped apart, the uncertainty of what will happen, the inability of families and communities to take care of one another, is a constant of government roundups, imprisonments, and deportations. It is an institutionalized production of agitation and dread that disciplines both those who are its objects and those who are said to be its beneficiaries, the remaining Americans who are not [yet] the state’s manifest targets. It is not a “side effect” of law enforcement. It is the point.
We have been here before, done this before. Of many possible examples, I am drawn to the actual and threatened deportation of Russian residents of Detroit in December, 1919, as recorded by a woman named Agnes Inglis. Agnes was an anarchist and later became the curator of the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, which still stands as one of the best collections of radical literature in the world. Agnes was active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) when the federal government launched the assault on immigrants and radicals known as “the Palmer raids” after their chief author, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis Post famously named the period the “deportation delirium.” Radicals of all ethnicities were targeted, prime among them the Russian immigrants belonging to the Union of Russian Workers, a labor organization that published literature critical of capitalism and the state, organized reading rooms, and offered English language classes to immigrants. 
How is it done?

First, the targets are defined as dangerous: they are branded as terrorists, criminals, aliens, threats to national security. Perhaps they organized a union, or missed a court date, or published a radical magazine. Perhaps they happen to live in the same house with others who have done these things. Seen through the lens of nativist fears, the immigrants are defined as dangerous-foreign-dirty. Acutely aware of the anxieties and disgust being manufactured about them, immigrant communities experience growing fears. Is it safe to go outside? To go to the hospital? To go to school or work?

Then come the roundups. Agnes writes:

“Word has come. It is Wednesday. Hessian Tagieff must give himself up, on Friday, to be deported. He is undesirable. All the little details must be attended to. Nothing matters. Nothing can stand in the way. On Friday they extend the time till Sunday…. We rush hither and thither helping him to get ready…

“It‘s Sunday. He and Alex Nichentoff [a painter] meet at the office of the Immigration Station. Alex has $70 worth of paints in his trunk. He also has $35 his comrades gave him the night before. Will they let me buy some shoes, he asks, when I get to New York? I do not know…I had never been to Ellis Island. I did not know how we treated folks ordered deported….Will they let me take my paints to Russia? I did not know. I hoped so. He had them in a trunk. His trunk and Hessian’s went on to New York. Hessian had gifts for his child he was to see now again back in Russia….(“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 49)

There is chaos. Families cannot locate their detained relatives. There is panic, designed to disrupt their lives, to make ordinary life unlivable. After Hessian Tagieff and Alex Nichentoff are rounded up, Agnes and other Detroit residents witness dozens more men arrested without warrants and held incommunicado. Agnes see them, 99 men in a cell meant for 23. She calls lawyers to help. “But everybody was scared of the Department of Justice.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 54) Bail is set at $10,000 each, a colossal amount that the activist community cannot hope to raise. There is a rumor the detainees are to be sent to Soviet Russia but no one knows for sure. No one knows what is going on.
Ordinary people will try to help. After seeing off Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff, Agnes and one lawyer are trying to help 56 men, 12 children and 5 women who are now in jail to prepare for deportation. They need shoes, clothes, suitcases, food, and money. One has a house to be sold. They have 2 days.

“We discuss bank accounts and personal belongings like top shirts and collar buttons and fur caps – able-bodied men unable to attend to the details connected with getting to [sic] hell out of here.--- I recall my own trip to Europe and my preparations for my personal wellbeing – in summer, too. Now it is winter: zero weather. Yet these men must rely upon a few of us comrades to attend to the details of travel for 56 men 12 children and 5 women. And only two days to do it all in!” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 51.)

Agnes muses:

“Spies betray; police arrest; officials in warm offices issue orders to break up homes but comrades – human folks – must do the human things.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 52)

Some of the deportees are actually removed from the country. When Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff were taken from Detroit to be deported along with 247 others, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, on the leaky transport ship The Buford, Agnes was there:

“I am the only one there at the end to say good-bye. I go… to the patrol wagon. I lean in and shake hands…Others are in the patrol wagon, too…Not deportees….perhaps dependents. Going somewhere else to see how friendless the world can prove…. I feel for a long time afterwards as tho [sic] I were living a part in the Tale of Two Cities …. (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 49)

“The Buford, the first Ark, has sailed away…..Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff went on it, with the clothes they had on them, in zero weather, on an old weather beaten ship. Their trunks were left behind at Ellis Island.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 50)

Some will not be deported after all but held indefinitely in jail. In the end, the wives and children of the Detroit men did not go with their husbands and fathers, but they had sold everything in preparation for the threatened deportation. Ironically, these particular men did not go either. Due to Agnes’ frantic interventions, they literally missed the boat. The Buford sailed without them and, despite official announcements to the contrary, there were no other “Red Arks.” “The men just stayed in jail and the women were homeless and so were the children.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 52)

But of course the Detroit activists did not know this would happen:

“But in Detroit, after getting the word on Wednesday we set out in earnest to get things ready for that little ocean voyage for our comrades. And by Saturday night they were ready. One little home was sold. Every home was broken up and everything disposed of. Sewing machines were sold and everything. The women bought clothing for the long cold trip with the little money they got for their household things. But Thursday another word came; they must be ready by Friday night! It could not be. I hurried to the phone and called up all the American bourgeoisie men and women with reputations that counted at Washington, that I could research who sympathized with these persecuted people. Telegrams flew to Washington. Washington was impressed – whoever Washington was – the Attorney General, I suppose. Anyway another order came to Detroit. They would not have to go Friday after all.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 56)

So the delay Agnes wrung from the hands of the deportation bureaucracy, with the tool of bourgeois prestige that she could access, keeps these particular men from going on the Buford. And keeps the women and children from finding themselves abandoned and without funds in New York City, because, despite threats to the contrary, they would not have gone on the boat.
Time passes. The paroxysm of anti-immigrant sentiment, lacking orchestration, fades. Agnes writes, “Every day or so someone is let go, no charge against him. The violent hysteria against these workers has abated. It is no longer dangerous to take their part. After months of bad physical care and insulting treatment the decision has come that they ought never to have been molested. But even yet they are not let out – they must be paroled out – to save the face of officialdom.” (Inglis, “Manifesto in Regard to Deportation,” June 1920 in File on Deportation of Detroit Anarchists 1920-1936, Agnes Inglis Box 27, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 2).

If the men are not deported, yet their arrest is not cancelled, then the state holds any bail that supporters managed to raise. Women trying to visit their husbands are threatened and forced to watch as their husbands are beaten. Children play deportation games: one child acts the part of the immigration officer who denies another child the right to visit her “husband,” played by a third child, in jail.

Protests continue. Some wives of prisoners go to the hotel where Palmer was staying in Detroit on May 16, 1920. They put “Deport or Release” slips of paper on the tables where the dignitaries would be dining. Supportive IWW boys call the newspapers. “The women all went home as quietly as they came, but a guard of American Legion protect the doorway as Mitchell Palmer leaves the hotel, and all the papers in Detroit and even in faraway cities told how the Reds attacked the hotel where Mitchell Palmer dined!” (Inglis, “Manifesto in Regard to Deportation,” June 1920 in File on Deportation of Detroit Anarchists 1920-1936, Agnes Inglis Box 27, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan p. 5)
We will ask how this wanton cruelty can happen. Agnes reflects:

“It’s so cold! The weather, and all this is so cruel and hard! As one man said to me today, “You will get bitter too.” I’ve felt all sorts of ways today. Now I am numb. It seems more like fate than anything I ever experienced. They are all such cogs in a wheel – these officials – cruel or decent, the thing happens just the same. The capitalist power turns the wheel and the Power of Labor does not stop it. I’ve run today as though hurrying to go somewhere, as tho [sic] hurrying to tell someone something. But to-night it is the same. The only thing that has moved is a train going…where? And presently a ship will sail….where? No one knows. And who does it? Just a lot of automatons in a system. Is there any intellect in all this? What is the Power? Whatever the power it looks now like it were stronger than the Power of the Workers. Where is the workers’ power? Why I went after seeing Hessian Tagieff and Alex Nichencoff off - and I was the only one at the Immigration Office to say good-bye to them - I went then up to the Auto Workers Hall to the Open Forum where Paul Taylor was chairman and where everything was run by law and order and there was no chance – no loophole for me to take to tell the workers that Hessian Tagieff and Alex Nichencoff had gone to the station in a patrol wagon to be sent to New York and then to be sent no one knows where. I couldn’t get up there in that workers’ open forum and tell it any more than I could have over across the street at the Y.M.C.A. Why couldn’t I?” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p.50)

What would Agnes do?

Agnes’ story suggests options we might develop:

1. Help besieged and imprisoned immigrants now. Ordinary and inadequate as it is, they need water, diapers, food and lawyers. They need witnesses. Some of us have the same sort of bourgeois resources that Agnes had, the money for bail or donations, the connections to respectable people who can be moved to object to unnecessary suffering. Organizations with good on-the-ground reputations currently helping immigrants include Al Otro Lado and Border Angels
2. Tell people. Agnes and other IWW activists are indefatigable in telling the world about the misery and injustice of the raids. Agnes often crafts her writing to best advantage. She uses the repetition of the men’s names -- Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff -- to get readers past the unfamiliar Russian and Persian spellings, to make the individuals real. She makes their suffering accessible to readers by her comparisons of their besieged misery to the ordinary details of her own travel preparations. She makes the cruel suppression of these men by the state palpable by taking us through the humble bodily needs of people the state throws away. Her own grammar is part of her message: the lack of commas in her lists runs the items together with a sense of urgency: “56 men 12 children and 5 women.” Her run-on sentences make their own demands, as though her message needs to be delivered in one long burst.

3. Find temporary solace in humor. Agnes reflects on the absurd aspects of the spectacle in which she struggles:

“We discuss solemnly the size of shoes of a man, it is very necessary to discuss shoes – the shoes of this man who is trying to overthrow the great Government – shoes, gloves – woolen gloves – size 8 ½.” (p. 51)

She finds the ridiculous in the sublime:

“It is terrible, the most terrible thing I have ever taken part in, the most heartless. Yet we have to laugh. They speak in Russian. One looking at the status of Jesus on the window ledge within the bars, says something. Another interprets: “The poor Jesus! For what he is in here?” (p. 52)

While mockery of power is never a fully adequate strategy, it offers a needed respite.
4. Remember. With the help of people like Agnes, we can remember. Agnes’s letters, pamphlets, and documents are held in the Labadie collection, to which she devoted 30 years of labor. The lifeblood of radical history is held there and in a few other archives, including the IWW holdings at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive at New York University, the Emma Goldman Papers Project at Berkeley, the Joseph Ishill collection at Harvard, and the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. Reflecting her dogged labor and echoes of her Presbyterian upbringing, Agnes wrote a love letter to the Labadie collection that can serve us today:

“To the Labadie Collection: Gather, dust, and rays of sun-heat beat imperceptible, beat. And let the unbound wrapped-up volumes of voices of dreamers and world builders keep their silence, and time will leisurely emerge out of space, out of events so measured.

Perhaps no dreamer, no builder of worlds will reincarnate you into his thoughts, his deeds: you may rest for long under the dust, wrapped up in brown paper and tied with string awaiting the judgement day.

But - one day – that day – young dreamers, young builders, will untie the strings and unwrap the volumes and they will cry out! They will say “My Brothers! My Sisters!” They will say, “You dreamers, you world-builders!” And they will peruse these old records of voices and they will repeat your words and speak your names…..As, in these volumes, your thoughts and the record of your acts lie in silence, the dawning spirit of the Revolution will sweep on…It is sweeping on! And your thoughts and your acts -past tho they are – are not lost in it. And this, the record, will ever be beloved.”

Signed Agnes Inglis, Summer of 1932, Ann Arbor Michigan

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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Greta Thunberg: Fifteen Minute Pharmakon?

Sankaran Krishna
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

Why does Greta Thunberg trouble us? What is it about the spectacle surrounding her that leaves many of us with mixed feelings? Why do we ricochet from a momentary appreciation of the young woman’s courage and directness to regarding the attention she has been getting as a part of the problem to even harboring anger and worse at her stentorian self-righteousness and her persona as a global scold? This brief essay tries to untangle my skein of emotions by enlisting the idea of the pharmakon.
Let us peremptorily define pharmakon to mean a combination of poison + antidote that is essentially a smaller portion of the self-same poison + scapegoat or sacrificial lamb. In what follows, I try to show why the Greta Thunberg phenomenon keeps evoking this intermixture of hope, cynicism, and anger, in so many of us.
   Greta Thunberg, wittingly or otherwise, exemplifies the privilege that accrues to people from certain regions, nations, classes and races in the world when it comes to pronouncing on global issues. That people from these self-same categories are also overwhelmingly responsible for much of the crap we find ourselves in is a matter that goes relatively unmarked. She did not choose to be born as a white girl in Sweden, but that accident has a great deal to do with her contemporary visibility.
   What if, about a year ago, a Malaysian teenager named Rashida Ali had chained herself to the railings around the Parliament in Kuala Lumpur in protest over climate change? Would we have heard about her? I think not. In fact, I know not. Irom Sharmila’s was one of the longest hunger strikes in human history in protest over India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act which allowed the Indian army to act with impunity in its border states. Sharmila eventually gave up and called off her strike as it seemed so futile. Few Indians, let alone people outside the country, heard that tree fall; most of us even didn’t even know it existed before it fell.
Others – fifteen year old Autumn Peltier who has been at the forefront of the struggle of the First Nations of Canada for clean water, Medha Patkar who has spent decades trying to stop the development of dams across the Narmada river which spell disaster for millions of villagers in the state of Gujarat, the women of the Chipko movement in northern India who were the first tree-huggers- have protested against injustices ranging from the proximate to the planetary. Yet they have never commanded the sort of global visibility that Thunberg has. The apocalypse that Thunberg warns of has already happened to millions over five centuries. They protested and continue to resist in myriad ways without drawing a fraction of the attention she is able to command.
Thunberg’s ability to scale her protest up to the level of the global is inseparable from the very industrial, technological, digitized, racialized, and mediated processes that have helped create the crisis she protests against. Her image and actions have gone viral through processes inextricable from the spinoffs of military technology, avaricious consumerism, and media sensationalism. They rely on platforms built on rare earths mined in Africa and produced by slave labor in third world export-processing zones. One can only imagine the amount of airline and other fuels consumed by media personnel who followed her across the Atlantic and over the American landmass to cover the spectacle.
 Thunberg’s calls for saving the planet for the future, for the children, for young people like her, attach a primal innocence to youth that grates in a world where for all too many the innocence of youth has long been lost if it ever existed. Whether its child laborers working in brick kilns since they were toddlers, or teenage soldiers conscripted into ethnic conflicts, or children deliberately mutilated to make them more efficacious beggars, Thunberg’s demand for the restoration of youth itself bespeaks a privileged locus of enunciation. 
Moreover, her foregrounding of lost youth needs to be queered for its heteronormative habitus: innocent youth need saving so they may go on to perpetuate the species through nuclear families. There is a normalized futurity in her narration of a world foregone. While I don’t expect her to show such awareness, the absence of it in so much of the moralizing discourse that surrounds her certainly highlights the incongruity of the desire to return to the innocence of youth in a world where both innocence and youth are unavailable to so many.
To put it simply, there is too much of the Heidegerrian world-as-picture in her imagination and protest, and yet, it’s arguably our ability to scale up to such global levels that has brought us to the current crisis.
Thunberg is from Sweden: the land of Abba and paternity leave. A place where Prime Ministers sometimes bicycle to Parliament and, even when they are assassinated, make sure they were merely walking home after catching a movie with their wife rather than in a bullet-proof limousine surrounded by a security cordon. Sweden is uncontaminated by histories of colonial atrocities (though the record will show that they did attempt, ineffectually, to become a colonial power back in the day) or the unnerving presence of large numbers of dark-skinned ex-subjects in its cities and towns or exotic loot from faraway lands displayed in quiet museums in her capital. There aren’t too many guilt-free white spaces left to which liberal causes can unreservedly affiliate themselves: Sweden (and the rest of Scandinavia) heads that relatively short list. (Sometimes I feel virtue-signaling Volvo drivers actually think their cars are less polluting simply because they are made in Sweden).
Thunberg cut a lonely figure in that ubiquitous photograph of the schoolgirl-chained-to-the-fence outside the Parliament. The idea of a heroic individual changing enduring systems is one that has a long and strong appeal to the liberal imagination: it allows us to retain the illusion that oppressive structures can be changed by acts of individual will and sacrifice. And that the failure to do so has less to do with the power of the structures and more to do with the weakness of our will.
When the individual in question may also be classified as ‘disabled’ (Thunberg is reported to diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome) it adds to the patina of heroism. As Jasbir Puar, among others, has argued, the figure of the disabled (western) hero draws our eyes away from the systemic global production of debility through the slow violence of neocolonial economic policies and the swift violence of war. 
In an era of glossy, freeze-dried celebrity heroes (think Brangelina) Thunberg comes across as authentic: an awkward, blunt-talking teenager who has pronounced various emperors naked. Yet, the third-worlder in me looks suspiciously at the combination of white saviorhood, innocent youth, individualist action and disabled heroine and wonders what all the smoke and mirrors conceal?
 Finally, Thunberg has already emerged as a scapegoat, a site of displacement for many forms of obvious and inchoate anger. Strident moralism, at the best of times, is likely to evoke a “fuck-you-too” as fatigue and over-familiarity set in. When it comes packaged with global celebrity it’s unsurprising that Thunberg has evoked much hostility. To the science-denying right wing, she is emblematic of the sort of extremist (and utopian) liberal politics reduced to absurdity. Their anger and mockery is transparent and quite easy to decipher.
More difficult to parse is the distaste of many who ostensibly share her politics and her ethics. At least one aspect of this distaste is a form of self-hatred: “this young woman has had the guts to say and do the right things. What exactly have I done lately to put my money where my mouth is?” These are dangerous questions for many of us who aspire to be environmentally responsible in the abstract but fail every single minute of every single day in our practice.
The world we inhabit and frankly enjoy is one premised on acting as if the planet is an infinite basket of resources for us to do whatever we please with. Thunberg is an irritating reminder that not only is that not true, but more importantly, that we can change who we are by an act of our will. That she seems to have that will and we clearly don’t transmutes quite rapidly from self-hatred to despising Thunberg. She has become a figure we love to hate and/or hate to love for relentlessly reminding us that even if saving the planet is probably beyond us, we could change who we are and how we act. 
There’s an even darker secret within some of us: it is increasingly obvious that as a species we lack the collective will or nous to alter our headlong rush into oblivion. Some of us, at least some of the time, harbor a feeling that if something bad were to happen to this unblemished heroine, this gutsy young girl from Sweden, maybe that will shake us into action? That might awaken us to our dire and impending doom? Perhaps Greta Thunberg is the sacrifice demanded of us by a gambling God who has evidently upped the ante beyond anything that has gone on before? That would, of course, bring the Greta Thunberg story to a classic terminus: she would become the golden child we sacrificed in order to regain our humanity and our planet.
I suspect the way it will actually play out is more mundane, or at least that is my hope. Just as Malala Yousufzai served a certain function in a different geopolitical moment and now probably languishes in a post-Nobel conference circuit from hell, Thunberg too may soon be pushed aside by the next posterchild of doomed salvation. But at this moment in time, Thunberg reigns as a fifteen minute pharmakon: poison, antidote, and scapegoat all rolled into one highly visible, ornery and ephemeral persona.
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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Trump, Militarism, and Fascism

Steve Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and has just completed a book manuscript entitled Tyrannicide: Trump, White Nationalism, and Democratic Resistance.

On July 4th Donald Trump, pronouncing himself the country’s “favorite president,” commandeered annual Independence Day festivities on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Inspired by spectacular commemorative occasions abroad, France’s Bastille Day in particular, Trump militarized America’s 4th of July celebration by saluting the nation’s military forces to the point of worship and brandishing its lethal war machinery to the point of fixation, promising to produce “the show of a lifetime!” While Trump’s speech was cheered in some quarters for focusing on the country and its achievements rather than appealing to his white nationalist base for personal political gain, as if his base does not thrill to the sight and sound of American military might, his political interest informed the day’s events. Trump established a troubling precedent for what has traditionally been considered a non-partisan holiday as the military became the president’s performance prop. Dispatching the Pentagon’s hardware to the streets of the nation’s capital for no legitimate reason crossed an American Rubicon (my thanks to Simon Stow for this characterization). 

What will July 4th 2020’s presidential election year show look like? Trump’s strategic willingness to make himself appear, contrary to fact, to be a patriotic force of national unity who rises above divisions renders him especially dangerous as he pursues his white nationalist agenda. Should his aspirations meet with undue frustration or defeat, he may, given his contempt for constitutional limits and norms, decide to act in the “good” of the country as he alone defines it regardless of the democratic consequences. For this possibility he set the stage neatly. Trump insisted that American freedom derives from the military and presented himself as their champion. He does not offer professions of presidential affection and loyalty gratis. He may not have asked for anything this year and he may not do so next year, but he has positioned himself well were he to call on the military for their support to reward his fidelity, especially in a moment of (alleged or manufactured) constitutional crisis. In short, why not try to seduce and corrupt the military? Given its willingness to wage George W. Bush’s illegal Iraq war (name a top general who resigned rather than aid and abet the charade), its republican credential are dubious at best. Given his low popularity he may not be able to maintain his self-conception as America’s “favorite president,” but this performance might help him guarantee that he is the military’s favorite president.

The disconcerting symbolism of the armored vehicles and tanks surrounding Trump possessed a menacing feel, as did the flyovers he ordered for the occasion. He was demonstrating the vast destructive power that he can summon from above willy-nilly. (He ordered a similarly gratuitous flyover of F-35 fighter jets to impress the Polish president when the latter visited the city on June 12.) The ostentatious displays suggested vigilance not so much against foreign enemies of American freedom but Trump’s domestic enemies. (The Bradley fighting vehicles were pointing at the crowd.) And Trump is nothing if not an agent of enmity. He thinks in no other terms. As Bill Connolly has been saying for several years now, Trump’s presidency has made the possibility of a fascist dictatorship all too real, a possibility he and his co-conspirators in the GOP cultivate not just on national holidays but every day of the year.

Thus, Trump and the GOP’s self-affirming Confederate character declared itself in Trump’s calculated 2020 re-election diatribe of July 14 against four Congresswomen of color, telling them to “go back” from where they came because they “hate America.” This kind of racist invective is fodder for xenophobic hatemongers, and calls to mind American efforts to purge the continent of African-Americans through colonization in the 19th century. It also give the lie to the claim that Trump and his minions are against only illegal immigration. The House of Representatives formally condemned Trump’s racist tirade, but only four Republicans, a pitiful but telling number, joined the disavowal. Trumps linguistic erasure of four American citizens, three of whom were born in the United States, constituted an act of violence in and of itself, proving once again the illegitimacy of Trump’s presidency: it’s not just that he cannot represent America as a whole; he has no intent to do so. His is a government of and for whites, especially white males who adopt his bellicose ethos. Thus, at a campaign rally in North Carolina on July 17, Trump responded to the House’s rebuke by escalating his racist attacks, bordering on incitement to violence, urging his supporters to “tell them [the four Congresswomen] to leave.” The crowd, in frighteningly fascist fashion, duly complied and serenaded an obviously satisfied president with racist chants of “send her back!,” a targeted reference to one of the Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar, an American citizen born in Somalia. These three words cannot be retracted or denied. Hitler would have approved his apprentice.

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Thursday, August 1, 2019

Dear Donald: Events are accumulating

Bill Connolly, author, Climate Machines, Fascist Drives, and Truth (2019)

Dear Donald: 
I trust you watched the festivities in Puerto Rico. I am sure Fox covered them. For years citizens, in varying situations, bore the tyranny, corruption, racism and incompetence of President Ricardo A. Rossello. They allowed him to ignore their suffering during that horrendous hurricane, as you, too, blamed the victims for the disaster. Events accumulated, with some people pretending they were tolerable and others absorbing them almost silently. Then a small bevy of secret conversations was released in which Rossello and his buddies joked about feeding dead carcasses to the crows, casually discussed killing the mayor of Santiago, and ridiculed numerous other suffering citizens. The pent-up anger finally exploded. People of diverse ages, classes and ethnicities suddenly took to the streets. Citizens blocked roads and highways. They danced to the rhythmic beat of pots and pans in the streets. Groups gathered on kayaks and water scooters to demonstrate in front of the President’s mansion. Famous performers joined the festival and demands. Acrobats and dancers dangled from city signs, as they performed with the Puerto Rican flag.

To study Rossello, Donald, is to gaze at your own future through a looking glass. You, too, are tyrannical. You, too, are corrupt. You are a racist and a white nationalist. You demean everyone who does not fit your tiny image of what belongs in America. Events are accumulating, Donald, taking a toll on people who may not appear to you to be profoundly troubled by them. Perhaps congress, the courts, and the Justice Department now either participate in your tyranny or flinch before their own responsibilities. But events themselves continue to accumulate. Something will happen in the future; it may be rather minor in itself. It will ignite street uprisings across the country, Donald, in blue and red states. In the face of that uprising the courts and congress may suddenly discover their nerve. That’s what happened in Tunisia, when Mohammed Bouazzizi burned himself alive in public to protest tyranny. And again in Puerto Rico after the release of secret conversations contemptuous of the people.

Let’s review a few events in the States, Donald. People now often try to forget many of them, as they struggle to earn a living, get through the day, send their kids to school, and pay their rent or mortgages. But when the new event ignites street revolts, these instances will come flooding back too:

1. You colluded with Russia to produce a massive invasion of the American election. Some continue to deny or diminish this astounding fact. But the repressed will return with a vengeance once the new triggering event is fired. Because free citizen elections and the essence of democracy are at stake here.

2. You plan to collude with Russia again, knowing that you cannot win the election unless you do so. That is why you called the Russian invasion a hoax the first time, not because you could not allow yourself to believe it but because you plan to collude with Putin twice. He has the goods on you, Donald, and it shows all over your face every time you and he commune in public.

3. You constantly demean nonwhite, non-Christian Americans, eager to find any flimsy pretext to do so. Government by pretext and accusation.

4.You treat the fetish of a territorial wall as a pretext to stop immigration into America, as you wrest small children from their parents and treat nonwhite refugees with utmost cruelty. This conduct teaches us about the virulence of your racism and, further, about how far you are willing to go with any opponent when you think you can get away with it.

5. You cancelled the Iran antinuclear agreement, intensifying tensions in the Mideast and increasing the danger of nuclear holocaust.

6. You continue to use all the prerogatives of governing to create profitable opportunities for yourself and your corrupt family.

7. You covered up your recent amorous affairs by breaking campaign finance laws, and now you use a corrupt Attorney General to stifle investigation of that lawbreaking.

8. You cancelled the Paris Climate Agreement upon taking office and continue to construe the fact of rapid climate change to be a hoax, condemning billions of people now and in the future to much more precarious lives.

9. You supported a huge tax cut for the rich, while increasing the deficit by the largest amount any President has done in modern times. You will, of course, now encourage Mitch McConnell, one of your henchmen, to use that ballooning deficit as a reason to cut back or refuse to augment a variety of essential social services.

10. You refuse to release current and former members of your administration to testify before Congress as Congress exercises the oversight functions that are a crucial part of democracy. You believe the delays you incur by forcing Congressional subpoenas to the courts allows you to get to the next election, when you plan to use all your powers to suppress minority voting and reap the next round of rewards of Russian collusion. You think that once that election is over you will face even less citizen control than heretofore.

11. You tell Big Lies every day, acting as if the populace is stupid enough to believe them--or at least angry enough to accept them as pegs upon which to hook their prejudices. Every time you face an embarrassing fact, you call it fake news, doing so to undermine popular credibility of the media. You don’t care that your lies undermine the public accountability essential to democracy. Because you don’t admire democracy. But most people, Donald, are not stupid. They absorb the assaults, hear their consciences fester, and bide their time until the spark is ignited….

12. You hire corrupt people to serve as heads of key bureaucracies, and you defend them when the corruption is exposed until it becomes a bit risky to do so. Then you dump them fast, as you dump everyone who is not useful to you at the moment.

One day, soon, a new lie will surface. Or the contempt in which you hold most of the American populace will be revealed by another action. Or you will call upon Americans to sacrifice for a new reckless policy. Or old allies in other countries you now treat with contempt will refuse your urgent call for help. Or Putin will release hidden facts about you—Kompromat--because you are not quite as much a toady as he demands you to be or because he now wants to throw an election into chaos rather than supporting one candidate. The trigger may well be small, Donald. But the accumulation of previous events will turn it into an avalanche.

I will join that avalanche, Donald, using street tactics and refusing to participate in bloodshed. We know, of course, that you will immediately accuse us of violence, as aspiring fascists always do. Projecting onto the opposition everything they are all so willing to do themselves. We know, too, that you will hire thugs to work us over—as aspirational fascists always do when their regime starts to crumble. When the streets fill, Donald, when the peaceful street actions become overwhelming, when the world stops, you will eventually collapse. As you see erstwhile supporters melt away. Why should they stick with you when it is abundantly clear that you would sacrifice them immediately to a new hotel, or a money laundering project, or the need to protect yourself from charges of illegality, or a few votes in Florida? Why, indeed, because you now only attract loyalty from people who are a lot like you.

Until the flood next time,
Citizen Connolly

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