This year has produced a bumper crop of exaggerations, shaded truths and downright fibs on the election trail. So here are a set of arguments gleaned from the bowels of rightwing Facebook posts and blogs with researched responses for when you realize you are arguing with in-laws who are politically to the right of Genghis Khan.
- Democrats want open borders or ALL Democrats want open borders. Note that in this claim no individual Democrat is specified. That’s because no individual Democrat (or group of Democrats) actually want open borders. Not one of them. Democrats have pushed for immigration reform and many think the ‘wall’ is a stupid idea (it is), but that is a far cry from ‘open borders’… If you are a Republican now, you might be asking yourself, ‘Well, why would a candidate say that, if it isn’t true?’ Hold onto that question, it will become important later. But know for now that after exhaustive research we found that not a single Democratic candidate, actually, not a single, living, breathing Democrat has ever once said they wanted open borders. Links provided below.
- Democrats support sanctuary cities. This one is a slight variation of the open border theme. Now, there are some Democrats that support sanctuary cities–BUT there are many MORE who do not. It is by no means universal. In fact, the U.S. Justice department under Trump has sent out notices to 29 such ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions. So we imagine the maximum number of Democrats who actively support such designations would fall somewhere in that ballpark. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. That’s a fraction of a congressional count of some 197 House members and 47 Senators. I, personally favor sanctuary status for many individuals who are fleeing violence from their native country and actively seeking asylum. In some cases, sanctuary is necessary because Trump’s Attorney General Sessions has declared that cases of domestic violence and retaliation from gang violence will no longer be covered as an asylum situation. Yet, many of those fleeing Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador are fleeing horrific levels of gang violence–in fact, some of the worst violence in the world. As a further note on this topic: seeking asylum is not illegal. All those people seeking asylum are NOT illegal aliens. They are unfortunate individuals in dire circumstances, traveling thousands of miles to seek asylum. They are also not, as a rule, gang leaders, or drug lords, or rapists, etc…
- What about the caravan? With regard to the much hyped caravan which is still about two months away from our border, our own military planners’ think that the most likely scenario is that the caravan will continue to dwindle in size as they move north with “no terrorist infiltration.” They do not see it as a threat, and they have declared that they will not fire on caravan members – even if they throw rocks, no matter what the President says, because that is a war crime. In fact, our military is currently more concerned about the presence of “unregulated [U.S. based] rightwing militia members self-deploying to the border in alleged support” of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It estimates that some 200 U.S. rightwing militia members could show up while troops are in the area. Apparently, these folks have been known to steal National Guard equipment.
- Democrats are anti-law enforcement. There’s not a single Democrat I know who is ‘anti-law enforcement.’ There are some Democrats that want law enforcement to be better at their job, especially since this group has the power of life or death over someone in their community. If you don’t want the police officers in your life to do a better job, lucky you. Some of us aren’t so well off–especially those from minority neighborhoods. What some apparently think is ‘anti-law enforcement’ is actually ‘anti-getting murdered’…As a general principle, we at APV stand behind ‘not getting murdered.’
- Democrats want to take my guns away. Closely aligned with the ‘anti-law enforcement’ shibboleth is the idea that Democrats want to take all guns away from everyone. Leaving aside the legal and logistical hurdles that would be required to accomplish this feat, it’s simply not true. There is not a single Democrat who wants to take away all of anyone’s guns. What SOME Democrats want, and by no means ALL, is to regulate the sale of certain types of weapons that have been characterized as military grade or assault weapons: the AR-15 is a likely candidate as it has been used in dozens of mass shootings and its main use is either recreational shootings or mass killings. While many Democrats may be okay with the recreational use of this weapon, I suspect the majority are opposed to using the AR-15 in a mass killing event. Therefore, SOME of them would like to regulate weapons of this type and the sale of ammunition for such a weapon. Many more support gun control measures like more thorough background checks, not allowing weapons to be sold to the blind, mentally handicapped, or violent domestic abusers for obvious reasons.
- Democrats want a healthcare plan that will bankrupt the country. No. Not a single Democrat wants to bankrupt the country. Nor do they advocate a plan that would do this. Now, there are SOME Democrats who want to improve a poorly designed healthcare plan with a single payer plan. There have been multiple studies done that confirm single payer health care (or ‘Medicare’ for all) would be cheaper for our country overall and far more effective for our citizens than anything else currently planned. If done correctly, higher earners (those making 250,000 or more) would pay slightly more for premiums, everyone under that mark would pay less. AND everyone would get covered.On the topic of Obamacare, it is not perfect–largely because the GOP did everything they could to kill it–but it is far better at covering all citizens at some level than the alternative, which is to let our citizens die of preventable or curable illnesses. Also, if you think healthcare is expensive now, wait until the GOP rips out preexisting conditions. Finally, and again, only a partial percentage of the Democrats even favor single payer or ‘Medicare for all’. I, personally, wish more of them did.
- Democrats want to raise taxes. No, all of them generally do not want to raise taxes. SOME of them favor specifically targeted tax increases, like Bernie Sanders (not a Democratic, for the record), who favors a financial transaction tax. This is a minuscule tax amount –0.1% for bonds, 0.5% for stocks– tacked onto a financial trade that would be used to pay the cost of higher education. Many Democrats, however, want to rescind the round of tax cuts under Trump that have largely benefited the top 10%. I personally think it is a good idea for two reasons. 1) the tax cuts are ballooning our debt which is hovering at 20 trillion dollars, and 2) they unfairly enrich the top 1 to 10% percent while doling out table scrapes to anyone making less than half a million a year. A fairly distributed progressive tax program would provide real tax relief to lower and middle class Americans; that is, those Americans who are making less than 250,000 a year. For those making over 250,000 a year, a return to the previous pre-Trump tax standard with a modest bump for capital gains (especially) makes excellent economic sense (it would operate as a broad stimulant to the economy), as well as moral sense, and begin to repair the disastrous levels of inequality which is polarizing this country.
Budgets are moral documents and what Trump’s budget does is reward people who inherit their wealth, or make their wealth off of investments rather than those who actually earn their wealth through hard work. There is nothing moral about being ‘born into money’; nor is there a ‘moral good’ in taking that money and getting massive returns on investments that you do no real work to earn. Both are, at best, morally dubious.
The wealthy individuals the GOP largely represent are enriching themselves and shirking on the nation’s necessary infrastructure costs, healthcare costs, educational costs, and our retirement funds, in order to do it. Ultimately, we all end up paying for that. So remember this coming Tuesday, November 6th, go out and vote. Happy arguing in the meantime.
If you have questions, or just want to vent, please feel free to drop us a comment and we will try to respond as soon as possible.
Five years ago, I was on the island of Lesvos, Greece, as the first Syrian refugees floated in from a nearby Turkish coast. Lesvos was one of the ‘red’ islands that for a short period was filled with ‘Godless’ lefties before a right wing military coup took over Greece circa 1950 and murdered about 50,000 communist party members. Things, of course, had simmered down by the time I visited that morning five years ago, but the IMF austerity regime was causing real pain in the economy and unemployment, always bad, was spiking even further. On top of this, refugees were flooding in from Turkey, across the Aegean on leaky fishing boats and makeshift crafts. I talked with survivors of an overturned raft, some half dozen had drowned, including a nine-month old infant. It was a tragic story, but hardly an Earth shattering event for a Western press accustomed to bombings in Syria, and primed for even the slightest hint of chemical agents; as if death from nerve agent were somehow more deadly than death from salt water drowning.
There were hundreds of refugees at that point in dire need of food, water and shelter. The Greeks, as always, did what they could, even with the IMF tightening an already vicious set of austerity measures. That’s because the Greeks, as always, measured things in human terms. If the press had spent a few days walking with the refugees or talking with the volunteers at the rescue centers, they may have found an enormous capacity for compassion amongst the ever hospitable Greeks, even while suffering some fairly severe depredations themselves. I don’t think this is a quality singular to the Greeks, by the way. Although it was plenty in evidence that summer, I think it can be found where ever humans comfort each other in times of need.
In our country, we’ll find that spirit after hurricanes pillage our communities. I know folks on the far left who have traveled to the heart of rural North Carolina and lent a helping hand after Hurricane Florence pulverized the state. I still remember a post I saw from one of the leaders of that rescue effort gently chiding her fellow volunteers to look beyond cultural and political differences and simply lend a hand. Don’t proselytize while you’re handing out sandwiches, water bottles and sleeping bags, she suggested. I know a few churches that could use that advice.
Others on the left I know will offer sanctuary to those who are fleeing from horrific events farther from home. For example, the Unitarian Church of Richmond has recently opened its door to a Honduran refugee fleeing domestic violence; one of the first ‘Sanctuary churches’ in the state of Virginia. Cities, typically ‘left’ leaning cities, have declared themselves safe or sanctuary zones for immigrants for years now. They do this not because they are ‘un-American’ or wish to cause damage to the country. Quite the opposite. They do it out of respect for what is best in the nature of our country; its openness, its generosity, its willingness to take risks. In that way, the left in this country is very similar to what I saw in the attitude of the Greeks, a compassion for those less fortunate, even as measured by the thin rod of an IMF impoverished citizenry.
In the last few weeks in this country, the left has been the target of some extremely violent actions, pipe bombs by mail, a deadly assault in a grocery store, and the devastating slaughter last Saturday in a Pittsburgh synagogue. As Paul Krugman notes, the man arrested at the Tree of Life synagogue had been critical of Trump for being insufficiently anti-Semitic. Bower’s rage seems to have been fueled by a conspiracy theory that Jewish financiers are bringing brown people into America to displace whites.
This conspiracy theory is, it turns out, a staple of neo-Nazis in Europe. It’s what our own neo-Nazis — whom Trump calls “very fine people” — were talking about in Charlottesville last year, when they chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
It’s also the barely veiled subtext of the manufactured hysteria over the caravan of would-be migrants from Central America. “The fear mongers aren’t just portraying a small group of frightened, hungry people still far from the United States border as a looming invasion. They have also been systematically implying that Jews are somehow behind the whole thing. There’s a straight line from Fox News coverage of the caravan to the Tree of Life massacre.”
I suppose this is in keeping with the general disinformation fomented about the left in the U.S. For decades now, of course, the terms liberal and left and more recently ‘progressive’ have all been derided as being somehow ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘reckless’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘weak’ or ‘feminine’…In fact, it’s difficult to keep up with all the wildly varied characterizations, but they miss the qualities that make up the progressive left that I know: smart, brave, determined, and generous. Exhaustingly so. I’m not talking about money, or the wealth of George Soros, bless his dreadfully abused name, I’m talking about generosity of time and effort.
From activists sitting in tree tops to stop ill planned pipelines that threaten our world, to the BLM protestors and sport figures taking a knee in solidarity, to the youngsters who have traveled into the heart of hurricane disasters to provide relief to citizens who didn’t agree with them on a single political issue, the left I know is generous and caring. If there’s a fault to be found with them, it’s that they are too much in accord with what the New Testament recommends to survive well in these pitiless times. And yet, that’s also their strength and why I take heart, even as Trump and his acolytes use the ‘caravan’ to stoke an unjustified anger at the left.
I suspect the tactic will fail, but if we must talk about this caravan, let it be in human terms. If it is anything, it is a simple test of our humanity. On one side you have a group, fleeing desperate conditions in Honduras, created in no small degree by our own meddling in that country’s affairs, (when we supported the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Honduras has since seen it’s murder rates increase by over 50%, becoming the murder capital of the world). At worst, these people are seeking a better life in our country through the legal process of requesting asylum. On the other side, you have a billion dollar military, armed to the teeth through a military industrial complex maintained by ensuring each state representative gets to bring home a percentage of the allocated military budget to his own home district. The leader of this pharaoh’s army is Donald Trump; a known liar, casino hustler, adulterer, and a con man. Many on the Christian right don’t deny this, but still vote for him, despite the glaring hypocrisy, saying things like, ‘sometimes God uses bad people to do good things.’
Indeed, but if we take that to its logical conclusion, God’s plan ‘to use bad people to do good things…’ ends with the right wing emboldened by a population of Evangelical Christians acting maddeningly unchristian, justifying the worst crimes imaginable: murders of celebrants at synagogues, bombings across the country, selfish retaliations at borders, like matching a billion dollar military against a an impoverished people struggling for survival, all in God’s name.
Is it any wonder the left is reportedly, ‘Godless’? I don’t know which side will win, of course, but I do know which side I’m on.
Remember to vote!
To begin, here are the bare facts of a recent local news item:
Honduran-born Abbie Arevalo-Herrera became the first person to be publically granted sanctuary by a religious denomination in Virginia this week. On Wednesday, June 20th, she was formally granted sanctuary at the First Unitarian Universalist Church near Byrd Park in Richmond, Virginia.
She came to the United States in 2014 to seek asylum after the father of her first child made death threats against her. He punched her the first time when she was six months pregnant. He would routinely scream at her and threatened to take the baby once she was born.
“I’d rather run away because I was thinking that he would maybe kill me because he tried all the time to kill me,” she said.
She fled to Richmond, and until last week, was working through the process of receiving asylum in the country. Despite applying for asylum, Arevalo-Herrera is now facing imminent deportation and the separation of her family after she was told to report to ICE on Wednesday to be deported back to Honduras.
“I don’t want to be taken away from my family,” she said.
Despite escaping from Honduras four years ago, Arevalo-Herrera said the threats from the father of her first child have not stopped.
“22 days ago, she received the most recent threat and they’re threats on her life and her children’s lives,” Lana Heath de Martinez, Welcoming All Coordinator for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said.
This comes nearly two weeks after US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges to tighten asylum restrictions. “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” he said.
That ruling is part of the “zero tolerance” policy that Sessions said was necessary to end the ‘lawlessness’ that currently exists in the immigration system.
ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell provided the following statement on the matter:
On June 20, Abbie Arevalo-Herrera, a Honduran citizen illegally present in the U.S., failed to report to ICE for removal to Honduras and instead took sanctuary in a Richmond, Virginia, church, making her an ICE fugitive. An immigration judge issued her a final order of removal in March 2015, which required her to depart the U.S.
Now, a little background, perhaps answering certain questions like, ‘what does it mean to take sanctuary, and why, for example, are there so many refugees now fleeing from Central America?’
The sanctuary movement, or the ability to ‘take sanctuary’ is older than Jerusalem. If you are like Mr. Sessions and enjoy dropping bible quotes, you might start with Leviticus 19:33: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong… [he] shall be as native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
You can trace a path from there to the sanctuary movement that was effectively established for slaves fleeing that ‘curious institution’ along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.
After that, there was sanctuary offered to the Vietnam War conscientious objectors and resistors by the peace churches such as the Quakers, and then finally, the contemporary version of the ‘sanctuary movement’ starting in the early 1980s.
Then, as today, thousands of Central Americans were fleeing horrific conditions in their homelands and seeking refuge in the United States. Then, as today, many of those conditions were the result of our foreign policy choices and actions.
In 1980, the El Salvadoran civil war was raging and the U.S. was seeking to defeat a collection of leftist militants that wanted land reform for the poverty stricken campesinos. The Reagan administration supported the oligarchs, represented by some of the most ruthless authoritarian governments in the region. In 1980, the Salvadoran government imposed martial law on its citizens. This marked the beginning of mass killings by so called ‘death squads.’ Many times these death squads were quasi military networks, funded by far right oligarchs in the region or the government itself, often assisted by military supplies from the U.S., or dark money from the CIA. Human rights sources estimate that 18,000 to 20,000 people were killed or “disappeared” in 1980 alone. Thousands of Salvadorans fled the violence, coming north through Mexico to the United States.
In the fall of 1981, the killing expanded to Guatemala, which led to a similar exodus. Thousands of refugees fled for their safety, but in trying to gloss the severity of the conflict, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees. Instead, the Reagan administration said they were ‘economic’ refugees, denying them legal entry to the United States. Death squads awaited them at the airports on their return home and many were murdered as they stepped off the planes. In response, the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s was born.
According to the Reverend Noel Andersen, National Grassroots Coordinator of the Church World Service, the churches involved in the Sanctuary Movement reminded the United States government that it was not following its own asylum and refugee laws. Thousands of stories from refugees were highlighted through the media with speaking tours that “raised the consciousness of the unjust nature of these civil wars and questioned the U.S. deportation policies that would have sent asylum seekers back to their death.”
Today, although there is no formal civil war, there are still horrific conditions, caused in many cases by the history of our interventions in Central America.
For example, an average of six people a day are murdered in Honduras (a country of six million), eight a day in El Salvador (population 6.2 million) and 14 a day in Guatemala (population 12 million).
Authorities blame most of the murders on the gangs or maras, but human rights groups say many of the killings are the work of off-duty police officers operating in death squads carrying out a sort of “social purge”.
In some cases, you can draw a line from those narco-gangs to the death squads of the 1980s. Elizabeth Oglesby, associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for Latin American Studies speculates that these criminal counter-insurgency networks [a.k.a. “death squads”] over the years morphed into organized-crime networks — violent gangs known to burst into the homes of innocent civilians and demand payment. Some of these gangs also learned their trade on the streets of L.A. and passed that knowledge on when they were deported years ago—like the infamous MS-13.
Human rights organizations say the increased repression is generating greater violence, and is pushing the youth gangs to develop more complex structures as a survival strategy. Some gang leaders have reportedly forged new links with the world of drug trafficking and organized crime, in search of protection from the stepped-up police action.
In El Salvador, 1,000 soldiers began to patrol the streets of the capital over a decade ago along with the police, in “anti-gang task forces”. The authorities said the new units are to be made up of three soldiers and two police officers.
Marta Savillón, program director at Casa Alianza, the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, a child advocacy organization, said the joint task forces tracked down their “victims” like hunting expeditions. She complained that they have only made it more difficult for groups that reach out to young people, because gang members who in the past were identifiable and therefore accessible to those engaged in social work and rehabilitation now go to pains to hide themselves away.
The arrests have also swept up ex-gang-members who were in the process of rehabilitation, she added.
In Honduras, organizations like London-based Amnesty International and Casa Alianza have also reported that death squads are killing youngsters suspected of belonging to gangs, often merely because they sport tattoos.
Savillón said that Casa Alianza has documented 2,778 murders of young people below the age of 23 between 1998 and last July. Most of the victims were members of maras.
Because these murders are usually not investigated, the perpetrators enjoy total impunity, said the activist.
A 2003 report by Amnesty International, “Honduras Zero Tolerance…for Impunity: Extrajudicial Executions of Children and Youths since 1998”, says “Most of the victims lived in poverty, on the margins of society, with little education and few job prospects. Honduran society has viewed the deaths of these children and youths with indifference and apathy, some newspapers even suggesting it as a possible solution to the problem of public insecurity.”
So the refugees come across our borders. Once again.
Not fleeing a civil war, necessarily, but in large part its aftermath, the fierce gangs that grew out of the remnants of civil society, seeking profits through extortion or operating with the drug cartels.
NBC news reported that fieldworkers like Magdel and Mirna Lopez and their son, not yet 2, decided to flee their small village in eastern Honduras after narcotraffickers murdered two of Mirna’s sisters. “We have rights as humans to be safe,” Magdel Lopez told a journalist, “and I believe the troops at the [U.S.] border will respect that.”
She was wrong.
Alexandra Mejia was one of 20 transgender individuals in the caravan fleeing violent persecution back home. The 29-year-old said she left El Salvador’s capital city after drug traffickers raped her and murdered her father. At her dad’s funeral, the same traffickers told Mejia they would kill her if she didn’t flee the country in 24 hours. She took their advice.
Armando had a similar case. A cab driver in his native Honduras, Armando had to cross a patchwork of street gang territories each working day, fearing for his life.
“Every day it was a challenge to go to work, I did not know if I would return to my house. But I had no other choice – I needed money to live and support my sister and my mother, with whom I lived,” says Armando.
Unable to make the ever-escalating extortion demands, Armando skipped a scheduled meeting with the gang and fled on foot and by bus to neighboring Guatemala.
After crossing the border into Mexico, he clambered on to a freight train, better known as ‘la bestia,’ or ‘the beast,’ to make his way north – unaware that he was once again in mortal danger. Criminals preying on the riders tossed Armando under the wheels of the moving train, severing his right leg.
The UNHCR said the number of Central American applications for refugee status had also risen sharply. Of the 350,000 applications between 2011 and 2017, 130,500 – nearly 40% – were filed last year.
Central America was last year home to four of the world’s 50 deadliest cities while Washington’s controversial deportation of Central Americans has been blamed for exacerbating the problem.
“The people who are coming are saying that the level of violence is brutal – they are basically confined to their own houses because there is a lack of freedom. It is very dangerous to go to school, to go to church, to move around,” said Francesca Fontanini, a Mexico-based UNHCR spokeswoman, “They are living in very traumatized and violent circumstances.”
Fontanini said most of those seeking shelter were Hondurans and Salvadorans but the number of Guatemalans had been rising since last year.
According to LawFare.com “among migrants leaving Guatemala, some are fleeing gangs or societal violence in cities, but many migrant families and unaccompanied children come from the Guatemalan highlands, which are more rural, agriculture-based, indigenous, and have lower rates of violence (defined by homicides) than other parts of the country. In asylum proceedings in the United States, women and children from this region frequently cite endemic family and domestic violence, and neglect from the local police who cannot speak their languages or do not answer their phone calls. These areas have also been buffeted by a changing climate, frequent natural disasters, and droughts. And the poverty in these regions leaves residents with little ability for resilience in the face of unpredictable rains or external events.”
“Without an ability to live safely or prosperously in Central America, residents begin looking to head north to the United States. That means coming up with the US$6,000 to $10,000 necessary for hiring a smuggler. To obtain this money, residents may sell their land or property, rely on the generosity of friends or family in the United States, or borrow money from local loan sharks and leave their farms and property as collateral. This latter option has its own consequences: migrants who use loan sharks and then are detected and deported by Mexican or U.S. officials are unable to pay back the loans, losing their lands in the process and becoming displaced once again.”
For those who make it through Mexico, the plan is usually to present themselves to U.S. border agents and seek asylum, as hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have done in recent years.
But this year was different, apparently. The remnants of a caravan for the U.S. arrived at San Ysidro, the San Diego sector port of entry and attempted to present themselves to Customs and Border Protection agents at the line that marked the border itself.
They weren’t allowed to. CBP agents claimed that the San Ysidro facility was already full of asylum seekers whose cases were being processed, and didn’t have room for more. This happens routinely; asylum seekers are often forced to stay in Tijuana for days or longer while waiting to be processed. The caravan group slept under the walkway to the port of entry building on Sunday night. On Monday, they waited to try again.
Now, many refugees that are specifically fleeing domestic violence or gang violence will not get in, no matter how long they wait, of course.
Attorney General Sessions has ordered those items—gang violence, domestic violence– not to count as asylum worthy—even if U.S. policy has helped to create them.
The Reverend Jeanne Pupke senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist church in Richmond disagrees.
These crimes, domestic violence, gang violence matter, deserve protection, she told a crowd of more than 100 people Wednesday afternoon. She said that she would offer her church as a sanctuary for Abbie Arevalo-Herrera for as long as she wanted to stay there. For as long as it was needed. “For as long as you wish to be among us.”
She told Arevalo-Herrera and the press that the church will stand by her family to fight what she called “immoral” and “inhumane” immigration laws.
“We will not allow them to destroy families,” she said, defiantly. “We are going to kick up a fuss that Mr. Sessions cannot ignore.”
Given the current political climate, Abbie and her family may be there for quite some time. But the church members and local community organizations seem willing to wait. As long as it takes.
Said Alliance for Progressive Virginia policy director, Scott Price, “Each generation is called to judgment by history, so far ours hasn’t made much of an accounting….We are asking our fellow citizens to stand up …Join us, be counted.”
Others refugees are welcome in sanctuary, Reverend Pupke added, “We are privileged as a congregation to open our doors to the stranger. To bear witness. To welcome. To practice radical hospitality, because what it says in Jewish scriptures ‘you yourself were once strangers in this land.’”
It was almost as though she were reading the verse off the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
It’s good that someone still does.
What’s Happening with Red?
At 61 years of age, Red Terry has climbed a tree fifty feet up on Bent Mountain, Virginia in an effort to prevent the Mountain Valley Pipeline from blasting a hole through her property. As of last weekend, there was no resupply of food for her, no recharge for her cellphone, or laptop. No cigarettes. On the ground below her a band of plastic yellow tape formed a perimeter; yellow tape with these words: ‘Police Line.’ The effort might seem ill advised, but she has many supporters who have gathered to offer their encouragement. She also has detractors.
The group at the bottom of the tree-sit, inside the yellow border, include a Roanoke county police officer, a plainclothes negotiator who wants to remain nameless, and a Mountain Valley Pipeline security guard from Global Security who also wants to remain nameless. He keeps his face turned down, so you can’t see who he is. No pictures are allowed.
This is Red Terry’s life right now, out on Bent Mountain, just a little beyond Roanoke, where they have been planning to build the Mountain Valley Pipeline for the last three years, right through the middle of Red’s family property.
I drove up there with another activist last weekend on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Hiking in, I saw lean-tos, flappy blue canopies, orange pup tents, prayer flags and ribbons that decorated the path along the woods. Signs read: “Water Is Life” or “We Will Win.” These are Red’s family and friends. They don’t wear masks and are happy to have their names known. Because of the distance we have to stay back from her, I have to shout just to be heard.
“How long have you been up there, Red!?”
“20 days, give or take!” She yells back. Since April 3rd.
“How long are you going to stay out there?”
“Until common sense prevails!”
“In your view, what would ‘common sense prevails’ mean?” A philosophical inquiry.
“This Mountain Valley Pipeline is going after our trees, our water, our air, and our lives. So we need to get rid of this pipeline. The politicians need to stand up. They need to stop bending over for this business.”
A suitable reply. Nearby, I hear laughter from her supporters.
“Delegate Rasoul was out here, talked to you the other day, did that offer you some hope?”
Delegate Rasoul said at a recent press conference by the Roanoke River, “We’re here to say, ‘don’t touch our drinking water.’” In reference to the problems the pipeline might cause for the local water supply.
He was joined in the television spot by the General Manager and Brewmaster of Parkway Brewing Company who added that negative impact on water quality could stunt the region’s economic growth.
“Deschutes and Ballast Point didn’t come here because the water sucked,” he said pointedly in the conference. “They came here because the water’s good and the quality of life is good. So do we let this impact us to the point where these people who have put millions of dollars into our economy make a second choice about what they’re doing?”
It was a rhetorical question that still needs answering.
All Red said from her tree top was, “Anything that gets talked about is a little bit of hope.”
Cole, Bigger Cole as he is called, Red Terry’s husband, added some detail.
“[Delegate] Sam Rasoul waded in Bottom Creek here with his daughters the other day. His two girls built a bridge out of sticks right there. Those girls did all the work. They asked him [Rasoul], ‘Why can’t she [Red] come down out of the tree? Why will they cut the tees down?”
“I don’t think he had a good answer. He hadn’t put his feet in the creek until then.” It’s a subtle metaphor and Cole, a big man with a spat of gray hair hidden under a khaki cap pauses to let the meaning sink in. He offers a wide smile to match his namesake.
Bigger Cole has a universal view of the situation, “All of our water effects all of their water. We’re a tier 3 water way. It took ten years to get that designation. That means we have some of the best tasting, cleanest water in the state. Probably on Earth. And it feeds the watersheds that let folks all the way to Roanoke and beyond drink good water.”
Streams and creeks from Bent Mountain flow into the Roanoke River, which provides drinking water to the whole region. Fresh springs from Terry’s land, along with thousands of capillary like creeks and tributaries will be crossed by the pipeline hundreds of times over. It occurs to me that we are watching an environmental disaster in slow motion.
The way Bigger Cole sees it, the personal is political. Rasoul had brought his children out to see Red Terry in her tree last week, but once his daughters started asking their questions, he knew he had to do something.
“Once he put his feet in the creek,” as Bigger Cole explained.
Delegate Rasoul heeded his daughter’s concerns. He’s asked the state to suspend permits for soil-clearing to give more time to study water impact. On Wednesday, he was joined by more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers who held a news conference highlighting Red Terry’s protest and calling on the governor to do more.
“We’re asking — urging — demanding that our good friend Ralph Northam … work with us to find common ground,” said Delegate Mark L. Keam, who was joined by Rasoul and other Delegates from Prince William, Fairfax, Alexandria and Richmond to show solidarity with southwest colleagues.
“We stand together, and we stand with Red,” said newly elected Delegate Danica Roem of Prince William County.
This is good, but it may be too late. The way most the people at this encampment see it, if it’s allowed to continue, the Mountain Valley Pipeline will destroy the water quality of Bottom Creek and Bent Mountain; it will destroy the landscape, along with their property values, along with the climate: a kind of devil’s trifecta.
Bigger Cole is not the only one with concerns. His son had also built a tree stand, but was unable to get to it before the police arrived. They took the ladder away, and little Cole had no choice but to stay on as part of a support team in the base camp. But Red’s daughter, Minor Terry, managed to scramble up her stand before they arrived. She’s down the road, also sitting in a tree, about fifty feet up, with Roanoke County police below her and a police line taping her off, as well.
I asked Red if she wasn’t an inspiration to her daughter.
“Do you think you influenced her?”
“I guess. We built these together. I went up and then she went up. She said I wouldn’t be alone, so I guess so. We are a close family. But I’m twice her age, so I get twice the area.” Red laughed.
Age has its privileges, after all, but she notes that the best property, directly below her, got taken by the police.
“Inside the yellow tape, the police got all the good real estate.”
“That’s where we can’t go now?
“Yeah, that’s why everybody has to yell now.”
“When did the police tape go up?”
“It’s been, oh gosh, two weeks. I know that it’s changed like five or six times. Every time I piss somebody off, it gets bigger.”
Red is good at pissing people off. Especially those in authority. A heavy smoker, she called down to police that she needed BC Powder for pain and cigarettes to keep her calm. The police sent up a few aspirins, but they said she’d have to come down to get the cigarettes. She didn’t take the bait. Instead, she dumped out her waste bucket on them, missing them by inches. In reaction, they expanded the crime tape to keep her supporters farther away, and probably to keep themselves clear as well.
“Yeah, I get cold at night,” she said, after I asked her about the weather, and the recent snow, “I have two sleeping bags, hand warmers. In the morning when I stick my head out and see my breath, I feel like a ground hog, I just want to go back under.”
She is charged with trespassing, obstruction of justice and interfering with property rights. And because of Eminent Domain law she’s also been charged with a Federal Contempt of Court charge.
When they took her ladder away, she asked, ‘how am I supposed to get down?’
They responded, “If you need it, it’s going to be down here.”
Since April 3rd, without food, water or cigarettes, she has yet to take them up on the offer.
Camp Kick Ass
I visited Minor Terry’s tree sit a little later that afternoon. When I asked Minor if she thought that the Mountain Valley Pipeline personnel might be afraid of her, because of her mother’s defiance and gruff manner, Minor laughed, then replied:
“Mountain Valley Pipeline can suck it. That’s me filtering.” She laughed again from her tree top, ignoring the blue tent directly beneath her, in which the MVP Global Security personnel sat, monitoring her every word. When I asked if I could speak to him, he said no, but came out for an instance and handed me a card. The bottom half of his face was completely covered with a black respirator mask, that made him look a little like Batman’s nemesis, the Bane.
“Why are you wearing a mask?”
“It’s not a mask, it’s a respirator. ‘Cause of the wood cutting and stuff.”
I wanted to point out that no one else was in need of a respirator, there were no trees currently being cut, and that the mountain offered some of the cleanest air in the state.
“May I get your name?”
“May I take a picture?”
He handed me the card and went back into his tent. There was a website address and a hotline number on it for all MVP communications: 844-MVP-TALK.
When I called the number, I was told to press 4 for a general inquiry for the project team. I left a message asking why they had MVP security personnel on the Terry’s property. I have not heard back from them yet.
At 30, Minor had the same steadfastness of purpose as her mother, but with a slightly lighter touch. Even unfiltered. She saw the absurdity of their situation clearly enough, but also saw that she didn’t have much choice in the matter, at least not from her perspective. She hovered above me by about fifty feet up, at a camp named, unabashedly, “Camp Kickass”
“The pipeline’s not even necessary. I’m here because I’d rather not let them ruin my land, my water and my family’s life. They [MVP] wants to plant a 42 inch [the circumference of the pipeline] bomb in my backyard. I’d be crazy not to try to stop it, don’t you think?”
The notion that the pipeline is a potential bomb is not trivial. The 42 inch pipeline will have a pressure of 1400 psi as it pumps fracked natural gas through Appalachia from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic coast. That’s nearly double the pressure of a smaller pipeline near Appomattox that exploded on September 19, 2008, with flames more than 300 feet high. According to Dr. Alden Dudley, writing in the Roanoke Times, the explosion “left a hole 20 feet deep and 2,250 feet in diameter (almost one half mile) in farmland. It exploded two houses and damaged 100 others. Williams and Transco Companies were fined $1 million for improper pipeline maintenance. Multiple defects in the 52-year-old pipe were known to exist, but they ignored them.”
Dudley paints a vivid picture of what an MVP pipeline ‘bomb’ would be like:
“A hole more than a mile wide. Instant incineration of all adults, children, pets, animals, vegetation, homes, schools, stores, industry, and government offices over an area 3-5 miles in diameter. Dams will be destroyed and lakes gone. Thousands of people will be killed in hill country; tens of thousands if near cities; more than that within cities. Our reputation as an environment-friendly state will never recover. Forget tourists, retirees and breweries that can no longer get potable water. In fact, forget economic development.”
He continues, “This article sounds heretical and outlandish. But certainty of a big bang is predictable. Pipeline companies speak proudly of “only 0.03 percent events per year per thousand miles of pipeline.” At that rate, the 800 mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline should have only one leak every three years. By 2006 the pipe thickness was eroded more than 50 percent, shipping of oil was down 50 percent because of pipe weakness, and there were already more than 500 leaks each year.”
In other words, there will be leaks, predictable as rain, and since it is natural gas under incredibly high pressure, there will also be explosions. It’s not a question of if, but when.
That’s why Minor is up in a tree. In the scheme of things, she tells me, she is a ‘Minor problem.’
A Minor irritant, she jokes.
“So, what’s your ideal outcome?” I asked.
“Oh, bankrupt MVP [and their funding partner, EQT]. But I would accept them caving under pressure, realizing it was just a bad idea, and going home.”
It seems unlikely, but there are signs of hope. Her supporters give her strength to continue, and her family is out there every day. Her brother camps out at night with her so she is never completely alone. Other journalists are coming out daily. On the afternoon I was there, Eleanor Buckley, a reporter from WFXR television in Roanoke hiked out and interviewed her for a nightly news segment.
She had brought with her an apple. She asked the police if she could throw the apple to Minor so that she might have something to eat.
The police officer sitting underneath Minor’s encampment told her ‘no.’
“I can’t give her an apple? A basic human need, an apple?”
“No. I’d have to charge you.”
There’s a deep irony in this, as there is an apple orchard not far from where Minor is camped that was recently cut down– destroyed by MVP — because it was in the path of the pipeline. The apple orchard was over a hundred years old.
“How does that make you feel?” the reporter asked.
“I try not to let it get to me.”
A few days earlier, Roanoke County had assured her they would see to her nutritional needs. But no one has provided her food and whatever supplies she has up with her are probably dwindling fast.
Her ‘wellness check’ amounted to some county personnel calling up to her, asking her how she was doing. One of them tied a plastic bag of Kroger Brand Cliff protein bars near the base of the tree. In order to eat these, she would have to climb down. That was the deal.
The Cliff bars still dangled there for all to see, like bait.
It’s hard to imagine the Terrys had foreseen all this when they first started building their stands, months ago. The entire Terry family worked together constructing the platforms on which Red and Minor now lay. They got the idea when folks up on Peters Mountain, near the West Virginia border stared their sits, nearly 60 days ago.
“Honestly, we kicked the idea around for nearly a year. When the Peters Mountain tree sits went up, we said if they can do it, we can do it. It was inspirational. When we heard about that, we cheered.”
“I have to fight to live here, because I can’t live anywhere else,” Minor explained. She had once moved off the mountain when she was younger, but returned within the year. “I missed it, the mountain, the woods, the silence. It’s my home.”
Now blue and white ribbons tied to stakes outline her tree sit, indicating what MVP calls the Limit of Disturbance (LOD) and what the Terrys jokingly refer to as the Limit of Destruction. According to a recent court ruling, her tree sit is in the LOD, meaning it is now MVP’s property, not Minor’s or Cole’s or Red’s. They have lived on this land for seven generations.
Yet, they remain optimistic. In a recent podcast of End of the Line, Red said that even while she sits yards above everybody, she just keeps making friends. “I’ve got a young girl that set up a tent next to me, because she didn’t want me to be alone at night. I just met her today! And she’s camping out.”
Red and Minor remember the time, not so long ago when they were undisturbed on their property on Bent Mountain. “I have no curtains in my house. I’d get up and I’d look out those windows, and I think that I’m the luckiest person alive.”
Minor describes how her mom fought off the gypsy moths when they first attacked the trees in the Bent Mountain area, for months at a time. She never gave up. “I think fighting off MVP will be at least that hard.” But she’s ready for a fight, Minor said. Certainly she and her mother have no intention of giving up anytime soon. Maybe that’s why they call it Camp Kickass.
The Hellbender Autonomous Zone at Peters Mountain
While I was interviewing Minor Terry, the reporter from WFXR gave me the low down on Peters Mountain camp: it sounded daunting.
It’s a tough hike, she explained. “They really don’t want you to succeed.” They being, in no particular order, EQT, MVP and the U.S. Forest Service.
Here’s why. You are not allowed to walk Pocahontas road, the access road to the camp, even though it’s the access road as well for the Appalachian trail. Rather, just past the entrance for the Appalachian trail, marked by a set of orange cones, you must skirt the mountain ridge, one hundred and twenty-five feet from the center of the road. What this means, in practice, is that you must walk along the side of the mountain at a precipitous angle, filled with bramble and thorns and rocks, and snakes. Yes, snakes.
The U.S. Forest Service which maintain the road, claims the 125 foot barrier is to ensure public safety. I wanted to know who came up with that number, and why, in God’s name, they would think it safer to hug a mountain ridge where one slip could break your neck, then a graveled access road? The Forest Service Ranger whom I talked with at the foot of the mountain would not comment.
Walking along the side of the mountain, I decided to call my handy MVP ‘Talk’ phone number and ask them who came up with that crazy distance. I left MVP another message. I have not heard back from them yet.
It took me about an hour and a half to get there. Through the woods, the rocks, the nettles, the brambles and snakes. Eleanor, from WFXR told me that when she attempted the hike, the rangers told her at the outset: “Call 9/11 when you fall down the hill.”
“I guess they didn’t think I would make it in these shoes.”
The Hellbender Camp is not really a true tree sit, in that there is no person in a tree, per se. Rather, an individual nicknamed Nutty [she wants to remain anonymous] has taken a 60 foot cut pole of wood and raised it with a platform on top for her sleeping area. This has become known as the monopod. She has tethered the pole with multiple wires affixed to nearby trees, stakes in the ground, and, notably, the gate to the access road for MVP. If someone tries to open the gate, the cable goes, the monopod falls over, and Nutty will be severely injured, if not killed outright.
Neither the rangers nor MVP personnel have tried to open the gate, or taken the monopod down, but rangers have given it a violent wiggle which caused everyone in the camp to yell at them until they stopped. Nutty’s game plan was to prevent MVP from getting access to two other tree sitters further up on Peters mountain who have been there for the better part of 60 days.
When I arrived, drenched with sweat and parched, folks at the camp were tense, watching U.S. Forest Rangers re-arranging their yellow crime scene tape. That Saturday, they had a type of open house in the camp for those who wanted to visit, but on the day I arrived, it seemed as if the U.S. Forest Service was fed up with the trickle of visitors they had received. They were pushing everyone back from the monopod yet again.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“Measuring. Re-measuring. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
“That’s what they say.”
“They don’t seem to be actually measuring,” noted another activist at the camp, “They seem to be guesstimating.”
“It’s not very scientific, that’s for sure.”
The lack of scientific certainty is something of a theme with the MVP saga. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in a ruling allowed the pipeline to go through, but in an important dissent, Commissioner Cheryl A. LaFleur noted that she found the argument for the pipeline based on ‘public interest’ wanting. She found that environmental impacts to the karst region and the water could be worse than anticipated, and that there were other alternatives that were not pursued. Regarding the specific notion of whether the pipeline was in the “public interest,” she said that there was still a great deal of uncertainty as to the destination for the pipeline output. Implicit in this is a question: how much natural gas does the area actually need or use?
Activists at the camp are not uncertain, however. They said that the excess natural gas was intended for markets overseas.
“14 % return on investment is what the pipeline is about. It is not about supplying us with energy, that’s for sure.”
If you follow the chain of this story, from when FERC approved the pipeline to the DEQ State approval by way of the State Water Control Board, you will find example after example of studies not made, assessments skipped, sidelined, or postponed. At each turn, MVP was granted a green light despite concerns by scientists and researchers that no proper assessment of environmental impacts had been made. Given this, it’s easy to understand the activists’ cynicism regarding U.S. Forest Rangers blithely taping off their camp.
“So I guess ya’ll are following your boss’s orders?” asked a wiry fellow off to my left. He had a large gaucho moustache, twirled at either end, and wore a baseball cap. This was Jamie Hale.
The rangers didn’t answer, just kept laying out the plastic yellow tape.
At last, maybe one of them could answer my burning question, “Who came up with that number anyhow?”
Nobody answered. Instead they were watching some of their camp members don backpacks and arranging themselves in a wide arc all along the fence line. I saw an older man, with long silver hair, and dark blue vest, nodding to another activist farther down the line, mouth the word: now.
Then, they were gone. Whoosh. Running under the yellow fence to my left, and then another, to my right.
“Get back! Get back!” One of the younger rangers yelled, while the older ranger who had previously done the measuring, hauled off after the fellow in the vest. They were trying to reach the monopod and either climb it, or throw the packs up to Nutty for resupply. Like Red and Minor, the U.S. Forest Service appeared set on starving her out. Directly below Nutty, the rangers had built a campfire that was thick with smoke, probably making it hard for her to draw a clean breath.
The two backpack laden activists ran back and forth in the woods, crunching on leaves and branches, between the yellow tape and the monopod for a few minutes, both of them breathing heavily, chased by the furious rangers who kept yelling, “’ going to jail!”, like a kind of weird mash up of Blair Witch Project, and Keystone Cops.
“He’s going to jail. Take him to jail!”
Finally, the old ranger brought Doug, the silver haired man, to the ground. “Hold him there!”
From the monopod came Nutty’s voice, watching the scene, “Ya’ll okay? You good?”
The other runner, retreated back behind the yellow line, and went toward the rear of the camp, tried to disappear amid the tents, but a ranger went in to retrieve him.
“What are you doing?” Jamie Hale asked the ranger.
“I’m just doing my job, man.”
“But does that make it right, doing your job makes it right? Come on.”
“You know you’ve touched on the wrong side of history,” said Betty, wife to the man who had been taken down in the woods, “History will judge you!” Betty went into a tent and then returned and handed the ranger a narrow blue tablet container, a little square block for every day of the week, “He has a health condition. He has Lyme’s disease. He’s had two mini-strokes. These are his meds.”
The sheriff was called shortly thereafter, and, in a surprisingly brief period of time, two deputies from the Giles County Sheriff department showed up in what looked like a black Camaro, with Pink letters announcing ‘Sheriff’ and a stylish pink ribbon meant to symbolize the office’s effort to fight breast cancer, I guessed.
The two deputies stepped out of the Sheriff’s car and walked toward the encampment.
Each carried an AR 15.
“Is that an AR 15?” Jamie asked, “We ain’t armed.”
“Well I don’t know that,” said the deputy.
“Now I’m serious. Chad, you know this. Ya’ll don’t need no guns up here.”
“I’m not up here to cause none of you trouble,” said Chad, “None of you problems.”
“Yeah, but your bringing guns into our camp.”
“We’re not disputing ya’lls legal right to be here. And we’re not telling you, you gotta leave.”
“Don’t need guns,” Jamie snapped, “I will guarantee your safety.”
“We had no idea what was going on. We were dispatched out here, 1033. That’s the only information they gave us.”
“You’re defending the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” said another activist, Emily Satterwhite.
“No ma’am. We’re not defending anything. We were just called for assistance, that’s the reason we’re here.”
“You are. You were called for assistance by people defending the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which means you are also defending the pipeline.”
“I understand, but the same scenario, if one of you called us for assistance, we’d come up here and assist ya’ll, too. That’s what we’re sworn to do.”
“Okay, I’m going to call you for assistance.” She pointed to the monopod, “The Forest Service is not letting this person get food or water. What are you going to do about it?”
“We’re state employees, they’re federal employees. They’ve got jurisdiction over us.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“There’s nothing we can do about it. They have jurisdiction over us.”
“You just said if we called for assistance, you were going to help us. But you’re not helping her,” pointing to the monopod, “You’re helping them. You’re helping MVP.”
“I’m not for the pipeline, I’m not against the pipeline. I have a sworn duty to uphold, and you know this. You and I have already talked about this.”
“Bullshit,” Jamie Hale barked, “These son ‘a bitches are trying to destroy my home, and you going to take my county taxes that pay your salary, Chad—and you won’t– Bullshit.” Jamie Hale looked down and continued to swear, finally looked up, again: “I watched you grow up. I know who you are.”
“We’re not here to cause problems for anybody.”
“Just our friends who are trying to feed a starving woman” Emily muttered. She had tears in her eyes.
“We enforce state law. But we have no jurisdiction over federal law.”
“Go give the girl some food, man.” said Jamie at last, “Don’t let me down. Lay your badge down and go give her some food.”
This story does not end well. The two deputies do not lay their badges down, as you might imagine. They do not feed Nutty. They do nothing of the sort.
Emily said, “I know you say you’re not taking sides, but every time law enforcement shows up. They win.”
Another activist yelled, more simply, “Everybody’s working for the fucking pipeline.”
They arrest the one back packer who was trying to feed a starving friend. The other back packer, Doug, the older man, has a medical condition and is being taken to the hospital to get checked up before he is formally arrested. He is delivered into an ambulance and, at the last minute, Betty asks if she can accompany her husband to the hospital. She is told ‘no’, because he is under arrest and cannot have another rider in the back of the vehicle. But another emergency rescue vehicle is there, and an arrangement is made for Betty to be driven behind the ambulance.
I watch as they all get in, and drive away. When I turn back around, I see Jamie sitting on the side of the mountain viewing all of this. His cap is cocked back. He’s leaned over as though he’s had a stroke himself, clinging to his walking stick.
It’s the end to another skirmish in a war that’s been going on for over three years now. Pretty soon, Jamie warns me, someone is going to die. It might be Nutty. It might be Red, or Minor, or one of the tree sitters farther up on Peters Mountain. They are not giving up, and MVP has the enormous power of money, and its adherent emotion, greed, and bureaucratic fear and inertia to assist them. Yes, something has to give.
Jamie leans against his walking stick, flung out against the mountain side exhausted with the day. There are tears in his eyes, though he’s not the type of man you can imagine weeping. But the way things are here, on the last stands against the pipeline, despair is as reasonable as anything else I’ve seen. I shake his hand.
“Thanks for coming out,” he says. “It’s been a long day, but we got to fight it. Our way of life is being threatened, and our constitution is being threatened.” He looks at the tape recorder I have in my hand, “and you can quote me on that.”
He takes a breath, asks, “You heading home?” I nod, “Look for the little pink ribbons right along the ridge line there on your way back. I marked a trail, so it’ll be easier that way. Tell people,” he says, “when you get back to Richmond, tell people we need their help. Tell them you’ve got to use Hale’s trail to get to the Hellbender camp. Tell them that’s the best way in.”
Update: As of April 26th, both Minor and Red Terry have been allowed food and water. “I want them to be safe, and so we want to make sure that they have food and water,” Govenor Northam said in a Facebook Live interview at the WTOP-FM radio station. “The one that’s up in one of the trees referred to as ‘Red’ has been asking for cigarettes. I worry about her health. She’s 61 years old; she’s up in the … weather; she’s smoking cigarettes,” noted Governor Northam with a hint of disapproval. Governor Northam is a pediatric neurologist.
To which Red Terry responded from her tree sit:
“Hey Gov, I am quitting cigarettes. You quit this pipeline!”
Whitney Whiting’s podcast, End of the Line, referenced in this article, can be heard at https://soundcloud.com/pipelinepodcast/sets/full-episodes
In the dystopic vision of a world enthralled by neoliberal ideology, you can imagine Lawrence Fishburne in the Matrix, his dark eyes shielded behind shades, commenting on our current, everyday reality: “What if I told you the world as we know it today, Neo, with its raging inequality, its wildly expensive, and yet poorly delivered health care, its school to prison pipelines, its rabid fear of immigrants and minorities, it selfish and insufficient minimum wage, its careless gun laws, its grossly overpriced colleges and universities, its pockets of hopeless poverty, its tent cities and homeless beggars, its devastating opioid crisis was all by design; that every feature which we might call a bug, is really not an oversight or a miscalculation, but exactly what a group of men thought would be the ideal outcome for us, some four decades ago? What if I told you that they were not so much concerned with building a society as its opposite–ensuring that no work towards a common sense of society would hold together, and that every effort toward a collective good would fall away as hopeless and irrelevant? What if I told you that all of their efforts were bent toward ensuring the ultimate failure of the public government as a force for collective good, and the success of the private individual, not for public good, but for private gain and ascendancy was the only thing they valued? And what if I told you that they have largely succeeded?”
From the mid-1980s through the end of 2016, the Democratic elite has consistently held onto a set of economic beliefs that we may broadly term neoliberal. But the economy created by this economic ideology — and the ensuing crises — is a major reason why Hillary Clinton lost to Trump. Now the Democratic party is completely out of power in all three branches of government. At the state level, its minority position is even worse. The Democratic party is ‘in the wilderness’ as they say; and it’s precisely because of their refusal to reject neoliberal orthodoxy. This failure cannot be overstated. It has been a catastrophe.
So for those who care about such things, two questions immediately arise: What is neoliberalism? And what are the alternatives?
First, what is neoliberalism?
The term we are looking for—neoliberalism — dates decades before Reagan quipped about government being the problem. It’s an ideology that embraces laissez-faire capitalism where ever possible, and naturally it is also opposed to anything government-wise that would hinder the exercise of the free market (hence ‘liberal’). It was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum to them as nazism and communism. They hated it.
Hayek who was an economist who saw himself in the model of Adam Smith, part number cruncher, part moralist, outlined his thoughts in a now infamous tome, The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944. He argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read and influenced many thinkers on the right. Among them, a Virginia economist named James Buchanan, a University of Chicago School economist named Milton Friedman, and a billionaire named Charles Koch.
In 1947, Hayek founded an organization, the first of many, that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations. Buchanan, Friedman and Koch all belonged to the Mont Pelerin Society. According to George Monbiot, “The movement’s rich backers funded a series of think tanks which would refine and promote the ideology.” Many are familiar names today: The American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia where neoliberalism found fertile ground.
In Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean writes of James Buchanan’s time at the University of Virginia and the formation of his thought with regard to neoliberalism. He didn’t just tout the benefits of competition and laissez-faire capitalism, which was Hayek’s riff. Buchanan’s distinctive mission was to make a case against government, against the very concept of a ‘public sector’ or ‘public good.’ Like Hayek he feared what he called collectivism, and saw it along a spectrum starting with elements of Democracy, like student organizations and trade unions, federal regulatory agencies and ending with communism. His basic idea was that people had been wrong to think of political actors in a Democracy as concerned with the common good or the public interest. According to Buchanan’s way of looking at things, everyone was a self-interested actor seeking their own advantage. Politicians merely went through the motions of supporting the public good in order to get elected. He said we should think of politicians, elected officials, as seeking their own self-interest in re-election. That’s why they’ll make multiple costly promises to multiple constituencies, because they won’t have to pay for it, themselves. After all, the high-priced programs they devised were paid for by taxes wrested from “defenseless” citizens, who were given little or no effective choice in the matter. Buchanan thought of it as licensed theft, reinforced by the steep gradations in income-tax rates.
Initially, Buchanan thought that people of good will could come to something close to unanimity on the basic rules of how to govern our society, on things like taxation and government spending and so forth. But, according to MacLean, speaking in a 2017 Slate interview, “by the mid-1970s, he [Buchanan] concluded that that was impossible, and that there was no way that poor people would ever agree … there was no way that people who were not wealthy, who were not large property owners, would agree to the kind of rules he was proposing. Out of this meditation, he produced a very dark work called The Limits of Liberty. According to MacLean, “He actually said [in that work] that the only hope for true market freedom might be through despotism.”
Buchanan was honest, at any rate. He knew that given sufficient information, poor people would not vote to reduce minimum wage, or pass tax cuts for the wealthiest while they themselves went without healthcare.
As it happens, this ‘freedom’ that neoliberalism offers, which sounds beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for those who already have funds, but not for those who do not. It is the freedom to demand the cheapest labor, and the most open markets, regardless of the livability of the wages paid or the expense of eking out a minimal existence. It is freedom with absolutely zero recognition for what is referred to as the commons: our public airwaves, water ways, roads and parks; or more broadly the common good: a recognition that everyone needs to be able to survive with a roof over their head, with decent food, healthcare and an education. Yet, the ideology has taken hold; and not just a little bit, with a vengeance.
During the 1970s, rightwing academics and economists were not the only people interested in dismantling the notion of a ‘public good.’ During the 1960s and 1970s, when there was so much activism occurring on the streets and on the college campuses, there was deep concern among the elites and power brokers. Large parts of the population—which had been passive, apathetic, obedient—tried to enter the political arena in one or another way to press their interests and concerns. They were called “special interests” by the elite who had always considered their own interests the norm. What was meant by the term ‘special interest’ was essentially a euphemism for the remainder of the national population who had heretofore been unrepresented or under-represented.
Two influential documents came out during that period, right in the middle of the turbulent ’70s from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both influential, and both concerned with the same phenomena. One of them, at the left end, was by the Trilateral Commission—The Crisis of Democracy, a Trilateral Commission report. In it, Samuel Huntington of Harvard worried that too many parties were pulling Democracy asunder. ‘Special interest’ were overtaxing the system, he argued. The report concluded that in the United States the problems of governance “stem from an excess of democracy”…What a marvelous phrase: “an excess of democracy”! The report advocates “restor[ing] the prestige and authority of central government institutions.” Presumably by limiting the influence of the ‘special interests’, which is to say the rest of the national population who did not happen to be the elite. The report also concluded “the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young” the schools, the universities, churches, were not doing their job properly. There was insufficient obedience. That was the U.S. liberal’s take on the effort of youth to expand their own voting rights, minority’s civil rights, feminist rights, etc., and to limit the ability of the prevailing military establishment from sending them to die in a dubious war.
On the right side of the political spectrum, you have folks like Lewis Powell Jr., who wrote the influential document, the Powell Memorandum, which wasn’t as well-known, but came out at the same time. Powell produced a confidential memorandum for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was based in part on his reaction to the work of activist Ralph Nader, whose 1965 exposé on General Motors, Unsafe at Any Speed, put a focus on the auto industry putting profit ahead of safety, which triggered the American consumer movement. Powell saw it as an undermining of Americans’ faith in enterprise and another step in the slippery slope toward dreaded socialism. That’s right, once again, the idea that the ‘population’ was looking out for itself was a problem. Democracy, itself, was a problem. It had become ‘excessive’! His memo called for corporate America to become more aggressive in molding society’s thinking about business, government, politics and law in the U.S.
This worrying about excessive democracy, fear of a new kind of collectivism that would slow the march of business formed the ideological back drop for the economic implosion of the late 1970s. War spending, the baby boom coming of age, and the oil shocks created serious inflation. Profits declined and big business mobilized against labor. The first wave of de-industrialization hit manufacturing.
One of the countries feeling the effects was Chile. In the early 1970s, it experienced chronic inflation, reaching highs of 140 percent per annum, in part forced by the US government’s antipathy to socialist President Salvador Allende. The CIA-director at the time, Richard Helms met with President Richard Nixon and discussed the situation in Chile and Helms was told to “Make the economy scream.” Helms did, indeed, make the economy “scream.” He also used the CIA to help over throw Allende and install Augusto Pinochet in 1973. At that point, Chile became the proverbial tabla rasa for neoliberal economic policy. It was the opportunity Milton Friedman and James Buchanan had been waiting for—a chance to implement a rigorous neoliberal economic system.
What did the economics of neoliberalism entail? Reduction of top marginal tax rates, the ‘liberalization’ of trade, privatization of government services, and deregulation. They made the central bank independent, cut tariffs, privatized the state-controlled pension system, state industries, and banks, and slashed taxes. Labor unions were banned, and social security and health care were both privatized. Pinochet’s stated aim was to “make Chile not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs.” On a week-long visit in 1980, Buchanan gave formal lectures to “top representatives of a governing elite that melded the military and the corporate world.” His books were translated, and helped restructure Chile’s economy.
Soon the holy mantra of “deregulation, free trade and privatization” became the so-called ‘Washington Consensus.’ For power seeking folks these were sensible policies to carry out and other global headquarters to embrace and promote, and the policies were pushed on other countries via global institutions like the International Monetary Fund. The upshot of such policies, as the historical sociologist Greta Krippner notes, was to shift many aspects of managing the economy from government to Wall Street, and to financiers, generally.
Politically, neoliberalism was associated with a weakened regulatory state, the dismantling of the welfare state and a strong disapproval of any collective activity that sought to define meaning or goals outside of a market orientation. But, as was the case in Chile, to effect this change against the working poor, you needed a strong authoritarian government—you couldn’t really do it with an ‘excess of democracy.’ In short, you needed to ensure that there was no ‘excess of democracy.’ Hayek remarked on a visit to Chile, which had become a virtual laboratory for neoliberalism– “my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism.”
James Buchanan went further. He advised the Pinochet junta in Chile on how to craft their constitution. This document was later called a “constitution of locks and bolts,” and was designed in part as a neoliberal blue print for economic reform and a political document of rigid control. Economically, it required a balanced budget and a pay as you go clause, emulating Harry Byrd’s method of balancing the budget in Virginia. Social security was privatized and retirement accounts were effectively handed over to two banks, BHC Group and Cruzat-Larrain; both of whom had close ties to the Pinochet regime. Politically, Chile was essentially gerrymandered into districts to ensure right wing upper class control. They also disallowed changes to any of their provisions so that the majority couldn’t make its will felt in the political system, unless it was a huge supermajority. Union leaders were not allowed to belong to political parties. It barred advocating ‘class conflict’ and anyone deemed ‘antifamily’ or ‘Marxist’ could be sent into exile, without access to an appeal. It institutionalized the power of the military over the civilian government for decades, with Pinochet at the helm.
The rigid constitution was duly enforced by a vicious military engagement. Politically, in Chile, the rise of neoliberalism was accompanied by a reign of terror against unions, leftists and anything or anyone smacking of a ‘collectivists’ mentality. The Pinochet regime left over 3,000 dead or missing, tortured tens of thousands of prisoners, and drove an estimated 200,000 Chileans into exile. Buchanan appeared proud of his Chilean constitution, nevertheless. According to MacLean, his allies in the Mont Pelerin society adulated him and they set up their next regional meetings in the Chilean city of Vina del Mar. Breakout sessions included such intoxicating titles as “Social Security: A Road to Socialism?”, “Education: Government or Personal Responsibility” and finally, a session presented by Buchanan himself: “Democracy: Limited or Unlimited?”
Of course, the limitations on Democracy that Buchanan had built into the Chilean constitution were no impediment to Pinochet enriching himself. Quite the opposite, the rigged rules allowed the dictator to establish over 125 separate accounts under false names in seven different countries “to stash what became an illicit fortune of at least 15 million…Two years later, after these exposures, James Buchanan ended his memoirs with the words, “Literally, I have no regrets.”
What happened in Chile was not synonymous with the U.S. experience at that time, much as Buchanan or Hayek might have desired it. The beginnings of neoliberal economics here did not lead to a dictatorship in the U.S., both parties still operated within the orbit of a nominal Democracy. But the recession of the late 70s shifted the Overton window considerably. Keynesian economics were soundly rejected and Nixon’s old saw, ‘we are all Keynesians now,’ no longer obtained. That enabled neoliberal political operatives, who were organizing within the Democratic Party to push out the old New Dealers. The Democratic “Watergate Babies” elected after Nixon’s downfall were largely neoliberals, and proved amenable to deregulation and abandoning anti-trust efforts.
Additionally, hard-line conservatives had been hazed out of power since 1932, but had been carefully organizing and building their strength ever since with academics like Friedman and Buchanan working in the background. The stagflation of the late 70s allowed them to seize the moment, finally electing one of their own to the presidency: Ronald Reagan. The three succeeding Republican terms finally cemented the idea among the Democratic elite that the party would simply have to submit to neoliberalism to be able to compete.
Thus, effectively, both parties conspired to break the New Deal. When a Democrat was finally elected in 1992, it was Bill Clinton who led by introducing his infamous neoliberal third way, harping on the value of ‘free’ markets, trade at any costs (NAFTA), and dismantling the welfare system (TRAPP), and, in general, mouthing all the platitudes of the neoliberal orthodoxy, especially gutting Federal banking regulation (repealing Glass-Steagall). Much of the old Democratic base like labor unions were ignored or taken for granted. Instead, the financiers of Goldman Sachs and Wall Street held sway. Think Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.
But financial deregulation dramatically increased financial sector size and instability. Contrary to prophets of the self-regulating market, an unregulated Wall Street quickly created an escalating series of financial crises, requiring expensive government bailouts. Less than a decade after Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall, the worst financial panic since 1929 struck, leading to the calamitous recession of 2008.
Yet, the Democratic elite operated as if nothing had changed. Even when they took back the White House, there was no broad effort to hold anyone accountable for the billions of lost funds. Not one person has gone to jail, yet millions lost their life’s savings. What meager efforts there were to reinvigorate the wall between saving institutions and investment banks recently folded thanks to an effort by both parties.
As noted earlier, from the late 1980s to 2016, the Democratic elite has consistently held onto their neoliberal concepts and it has been a catastrophe.
So what are the alternatives to neoliberalism? What’s the remedy?
In a nutshell, more Democracy, not less. We already have the tools necessary to provide for a reasonable compromise between a centrally managed economy and a capitalist free for all—and people overwhelmingly want it. Margaret Thatcher, the famous British iron lady of the right, once declared there were no alternatives to neoliberalism. Frankly, it’s ironic that an ‘ideology’ of ‘free choice’ would suggest there are no other choices. In truth, there are lots of other choices and alternatives, almost all of them better than raw neoliberal orthodoxy, and, an ancillary benefit: they actually work in the real world. See most of Western Europe with their social safety nets, and the Scandinavian countries, all of whom offer greater social cohesion and security than that provided by the United States.
In order to get there, certain neoliberal orthodoxies need to be rejected. Markets and market like logic cannot continue to be the only precept by which to rule our government. This is a kind of fever dream of the right. Markets are man-made, man-controlled phenomena. They don’t occur naturally. They are constructed through law and practices, and thus can be changed, or marginalized, or simply ignored. Governments precede markets, just as labor is prior to, and independent of capital, as Lincoln noted over a hundred years ago. Markets are the outcome of governmental rules, just as capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.
Democrats need to keep that wisdom in mind. Their rejection of Bernie Sanders and the undemocratic method by which they choose to maintain their power suggests that some of them might sympathize with the market oriented authoritarian academics of the right, like Buchanan or Hayek. Now that is a sad spectacle for the casual political observer which will only serve to further alienate young voters who are seeking an economics of the left that would actually fight for a sane healthcare system, decent minimum wage, and affordable education. In short, it’s a politically stupid move. Oh, and it is also, incidentally, petty and unethical.
There should be some agreement that Democratic policies are not just technical adjustments or tweaked enhancements to a market based approach. Politically, they should declare that healthcare is a right. Education is a right. Being able to shelter and feed yourself is a right. It’s the government’s responsibility—our responsibility— to enshrine those rights. It is what we fundamentally mean by a common public good. The business of government is not business, but rather, it is in protecting our rights; toward that end, providing public services that are broadly beneficial without regard to religion, race, gender or class. The business of government is not to provide market efficiencies, or business opportunities, or to ensure that Wall Street gets a decent cut. We can debate the necessary level of government engagement, but the Democrats should reject any idea that only a market context will determine who gets educated, fed and sheltered, and who does not; who gets to live with decent healthcare and who must accept death because market efficiencies have determined that their continued survival did not properly balance a ledger sheet. Furthermore, the austerity that neoliberalism enforces is largely unneeded; the problem isn’t scarcity, per se. It’s distribution—and to do that fairly requires more Democracy, not less.
A recent study showed that it would cost $175 billion to alleviate poverty across the world. That’s about 1/6th of the current Pentagon budget. The Trump administration will propose a military budget of $716 billion alone for 2019, yet we can’t adequately fund healthcare for our citizens, we can’t house all our citizens or feed them? We are one of the richest countries on Earth, yet our Democracy cannot manage to adequately pay teachers, cannot manage to mandate a minimum wage that doesn’t consign vast swaths of our population to a class designated as the ‘working poor’? Can’t provide clean water to Flint? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to refer to ourselves as serfs, our condition as serfdom? Hayek’s foundational work sounded an alarm against collectivism and warned of Western individuals becoming ‘serfs’ to a centrally planned economy, yet without some plan, some social safety net or notion of a public good, individuals become unwilling servants of faceless corporate entities more closely resembling Dicken’s England than a modern Western state. Hayek’s future is here; we are no longer on the road to serfdom, we have already arrived.
By Jack Johnson
A friend of mine said he saw photos from the March, 24th protest and was impressed, but he wanted to know, really, what kind of effect it might have.
I told him the truth, I didn’t know. But I thought there were some important points to be made that apparently a million plus people marching through DC needed to make. So here are the relevant points, I believe, with accompanying photos to keep things interesting.
- Point 1, This march should NOT have been necessary.
This march is actually a shameful spectacle. High school kids whose best friends have been slaughtered by someone with ridiculously easy access to a weapon of war have been forced to channel their grief into political action because for decades now politicians– who are supposed to represent us — have not.
Poll after poll shows this: Background checks are favored by the majority of Americans. Weapons registration is favored by the majority of Americans. Semi-automatic assault weapons ban is favored by the majority of Americans. Age limits for purchasing weapons are favored by the majority of Americans. These could have been relatively non-controversial laws passed decades ago, but our politicians cowed by the NRA decided to continue as though a slaughter wasn’t occurring daily in our neighborhoods and our schools. As Dana Loesch so rabidly put it in her most recent foray into NRA propaganda, “time is up”; but not for gun control advocates. Rather “time is up” for those who refuse to listen to the clamoring voices of the majority of Americans who want sensible gun laws. A tipping point has been reached and finally, one suspects (one hopes, one pleads) the will of the vast majority of Americans will be heard over the brattling arguments of a decidedly obtuse minority.
- Point 2, This march is not about gun confiscation or a threat to Second Amendment rights.
Despite what the zealots at the NRA would have folks believe, neither the speakers at the march or the participants favored gun confiscation, or nonchalant rebukes to the Second Amendment. To reiterate the first point, the majority of folks there stood for rational gun laws. The SCOTUS Heller decision, whose majority opinion was written by the wildly conservative Antonio Scalia, loosened DC’s handgun ban, but made clear that the government has a role in regulating weapons across the United States consistent with a very conservative reading of the Second Amendment. There is nothing in the Heller decision that would prevent background checks, an assault weapons ban, national weapons registry, age checks or even weapon’s insurance.
The reason this is even a point of discussion is because of the continued misreading of the Second Amendment and subsequent case law by the NRA and their affiliates which have effectively cowed politicians across our country, allowing for decades of slaughter in our schools, our churches, our playgrounds and our homes. To quote their spokesperson, “Time is up.”
- Point 3, This march was not political, at least not in any conventional partisan sense.
While at its heart it wanted to effect modest political change in gun law, we did not see political figures from either party take the stage or make any grand political speeches. Thank God. The young voices I heard were raw, authentic and powerful. It was one of the most focused marches in recent memory, and its focus was on violence prevention, gun control, and providing emotional space for mourning recent and past deaths by unnecessary gun violence.
In this vein, I think of Samantha Fuentes, who was forced to interrupt her emotional speech at the march, when she suddenly needed to throw up. What would be an embarrassing moment for anyone, however, was quickly transformed into triumph when the plucky teenager bounced right back, quipping, “I just threw up on international television, and it feels great!”
The crowd applauded and in that fragile moment of vulnerability, Samantha Fuentes did more to counter the myth of ‘crisis actors’ than any press release. During the march and later, folks noted and commented to me on the absence of the Obamas. I told them Obama speaking there (or any noted Democratic or politician) would have killed the moment. It wasn’t about building up a party, and getting someone into office. It was singularly focused on preventing gun violence.
Besides, I noted, even though these kids may not have had the eloquence of an Obama, everyone speaking about the school shootings sounded more adult and certainly more Presidential than Trump has ever sounded in his life.
Even not speaking held a kind of eloquence: Emma Gonzalez’s 6 minutes of silence to commemorate the 6 minutes it took for the Parkland shooter to kill 17 of her schoolmates was as emotionally taut and compelling as any political speech I have heard, including MLK’s iconic, “I have a dream,” which was referenced by these kids more than once: which bring us to our last point.
- Point 4, This march was as much about processing grief as it was about political action
Many times these marches, especially on the Left, have a kind of circus feel to them. You arrive equipped with witty signs, and ready to engage in political banter, gamesmanship and analysis, depending on your interests.
This had little of that circus feel, there were a few ‘witty’ signs, but many were simply bold statements of grief; or more pointed statements of anger at having lost someone to unnecessary gun violence.
In Emma’s six minutes of silence, there were attempts by the crowd to convert it into a kind of cheer “Never again” or “Enough is Enough,” but ultimately, her tear streaked face gazing across those hundreds of thousands of participants in grieving silence summed up this moment, and this movement, better than any words could.
The camaraderie of it, the stand it makes. The way it affects the kids.
How it puts action behind our words. The children need to see that.
With the march we create meaning in our own space. We gain an experience with others. The woman’s march of 2017 and the Million Women’s March in Philadelphia that I attended in 1997 were both an act of solidarity and a rally. We championed ourselves and elevated our causes.
Today, we will provide another teachable moment for all the parents who are hard-pressed to explain the world as it is today to their kids. For all the Americans embarrassed by this pendejo that is not my President. We will spark conversations and debate. Hopefully draw notice. Hopefully force individuals to grapple with hard questions. Maybe even open eyes.
And I figure it’s different for some who grow up and into a faith. I imagine it’s like a baby’s blanket that carries comfort and familiarity. I imagine that a religion may grow and intertwine into your thoughts especially if coupled with ritual and a sense of perpetuating the past. I pray, too. For re-formation. And as a descendant of slaves I long for a back space and delete that I can never have. But I also enjoy waking to the joy of existence in this America, even in this intermittently hostile winter. This home of choice for my father who emigrated here from Tobago. A choice based on the simple fact that America is a beacon. A beacon of hope and opportunity. These new immigrants are better than us. Brave. Ready for the challenge.
So, why do I march?
You experience something. You are part of something large and which stretches and extends from the past. The struggle.
And America’s promise will not be broken. America’s schoolchildren should be learning this message of “Why do I march?”
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” Keep your dogma, keep your misogyny. Soy bruja. I’m the witch you think I am, with the magic of the blessed. Our sex a wound. Our sex a power. Our sex a beautiful potentiality.
We do it for all of the children, so that they can bear witness to our disapproval of this man who has nary a redeeming quality. We reaffirm our own existence. We will not be diminished. Individually formidable, together we are more. Today we march. Today we will look into each other’s eyes. And today we will be heard.
By Kortenay Gardiner
Mark Twain once famously quipped, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
But let us, for the sake of argument, take the opposite view. Suppose you were not an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress? Than would you still vote for this monstrosity of a tax bill even if you were in a vulnerable GOP seat? Why? According to Dr. Nancy Maclean, author of Democracy in Chains, you might still vote in favor of the cut because you would be taking the long view, and, in her words, you could be “sealing the case for a constitutional convention.”
In a recent article in The Hill, (http://thehill.com/opinion/finance/366488-the-gop-tax-bill-could-kill-two-birds-with-one-stone), Dr. Maclean postulates that the huge fiscal deficit created by the GOP tax cut will kill two birds with one stone. The first bird is our social safety net –Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. These will all go on the chopping block as congress tries to contend with a potential 1.2 trillion dollar deficit. The second bird is a constitutional convention that could permanently alter the government of the United States.
Maclean writes that “many state legislatures were persuaded [to participate in a constitutional convention] in part by the lure of a Balanced Budget Amendment. A ballooning deficit could help get the remaining six on board.”
“By inflating the debt, the tax bill helps convince the American people that you cannot trust either party when it comes to spending. That in turn strengthens the case for a Balanced Budget Amendment, which has long polled well (until people learn that it will destroy programs they like and depend upon, like Social Security and Medicare). A ballooning deficit could help get the remaining six on board.”
Maclean points to Article V of the U.S. Constitution which provides two routes to amendment: through Congress or two-thirds of the states.
Our constitution has been amended 33 times, but always through congress. Maclean notes that Representative George Mason of Virginia introduced the inclusion of the state option in 1787 and won assent. Mason was a states right advocate, and ironically, it was at the university bearing his name, George Mason University, that a little known economist named James Buchanan first argued for a state based constitutional convention to alter the U.S. government. Most folks have never heard of James Buchanan, but the people who have heard of him — and take him quite seriously — are some of the most powerful players in conservative politics today: David and Charles Koch.
“George Mason University is today the core academic base camp of the Koch political operation… it was a GMU faculty member and Nobel Laureate in economics, James McGill Buchanan, who taught Koch and his grantees that what Buchanan called a “genuine revolution in constitutional structure,” would be needed to control citizens’ appetites for government spending.
“Why a revolutionary change? Because libertarian radicals like Buchanan and Koch believe property rights are the core human right and that government should have the right to tax — and therefore to spend — to ensure only one of three national objectives: the rule of law, social order, and the nation’s defense.”
Note that nowhere in that list is the notion of community, or social good or even what used to be referred to as the ‘commons.’ A social safety net wouldn’t just be destroyed, but with a constitutional convention, it might be written out of the governmental process entirely.
Maclean continues, “Buchanan argued that the only way to secure the liberty and property rights of the wealthy minority was to permanently change the nation’s governing rules. He referred to this as enchaining the Leviathan, a government that, he said, would otherwise only grow. He urged the leveraging of state power to achieve this. And it’s working.”
“In 2009, the GOP had full control of the legislatures of 14 states. Since the 2010 midterms, a radicalized Republican Party has gained total control of 26 states (the legislatures and the governorships), compared to the Democrats’ seven. The party has control of the legislatures of another six. In short, the shrewd Koch-GOP strategy of achieving domination at the state level puts a partisan constitutional convention within view.”
“Here’s the really scary thing.” Maclean notes, “There are six states in which the GOP controls both houses of the legislature that have not yet authorized a convention: Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, South Carolina, and Virginia. Six could line up in short order.”
Please note that Virginia is in that list.
This puts Shelly Simonds’ battle over that single vote that gives Democrats a single seat in the House of Delegates, which flips the House of Delegates out of GOP control, a whole new sense of urgency. God speed Shelly Simonds! The fate of the nation may hang on your efforts to secure the seat you have justly won.
In the meantime, the coming year is shaping up as a classic Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. Happy New Years, everyone!
You can purchase Dr. Maclean’s excellent book on James Buchanan, Democracy in Chains, the deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America, here:
The recurring theme of a “War on Christmas” is now a tradition. Annually, stalwart intellectuals like Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Michelle Bachman and (gasp) Donald Trump will take to the air waves and announce that our Christmas spirit is somehow less than Christian because we say ‘Holiday’ rather than ‘Christmas.’ Fox has been especially energized this year, issuing a ‘thought’ piece that suggest the ‘War on Christmas’ may yet be won, but wondering if Donald Trump has gone far enough. Indeed!
But there is something of value to it, aside from the unintended humor it invokes: a great ‘teachable’ moment, as they say. After all, the history of Christmas is the story of one makeover after another. In truth, it begins before Jesus was even a twinkle in Joseph’s eye. In those heady pagan days, when the unconquerable sun was worshipped in all its pagan glory and the winter solstice rejoiced at the coming gift of the sun (or ‘son of God’ if you want to be playful) there was an honored period of about 7days – running approximately from just before the Solstice (Dec 17,18th) through to Dec 25th that became one long party ride, a kind of burning man for the pagan era.
The premise from today’s principle talking heads is that Christmas has always been about Christ, and any sense of holiday or festivity outside ‘Christ’ is somehow an interloper watering down the spirituality of the time. This, of course, is exactly backwards. Most of our cherished Christmas traditions have nothing to do with Christianity—and everything to do with the underlying pagan traditions that celebrated the winter solstice and the return of the so called ‘unconquerable sun.’
The infamous Roman holiday of Saturnalia is really at the center of all this. It was a huge party, a gigantic fair and festival of the home. The ancient Greek writer, poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes a time of widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; where, as he said, “sexual license” was taken; and even incidents of human sacrifice were recorded. These incidents were given a culinary representation in human-shaped biscuits, something we still see in traditional Christmas cookies. Remember those ginger bread men?
According to Janet Shotwell, lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. ” Riotous merry-making” took place, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees that were brought in by the citizenry in the hopes that they would guard the life essences of the plants until spring. As one comic put it, our Christmas tradition is based on an act of sympathetic magic. Schools were closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Processions of people with masked or blackened faces and fantastic hats danced through the streets. The custom of mummers, visiting their neighbors in costume, which is still alive in Newfoundland, is descended from these masked processions.
But one of the most equalitarian aspects of Saturnalia was a sit down feast shared by masters and slaves. In fact, during the festivities slaves were given the freedom to do and say whatever they liked. A Mock King was even appointed to take charge of the revels, and from this fantastic class reversal, developed the so called “Lord of Misrule’ of medieval Christmas festivities.
About 354 AD, Christianity came along and tried to co-opt solstice festivities, but couldn’t really suppress the whole merry making, drinking, gift giving thing. They did manage to make the climax of the winter festivities the official day to commemorate the birth of Christ, however, and, of course, gave it the name we know and love. Christmas.
Since the hero of the New Testament was born in the Middle East, forcing native pagan activities to mesh with the birth of Jesus creates a weird iconography for the season. Do we actually ever look at the classic manger scene, laid in a bed of snow like cotton, ringed in red and green, under a evergreen spruce and begin to wonder? The iconography of Christmas is ridiculously mixed in with reindeer, holly, snow scenes and other phenomena peculiar to northern European myth. There’s an urban legend of a Japanese department store that tried too hard to symbolize the Christmas spirit by mounting a display of a Santa Claus figure nailed to a cross. Crucified Santa would be just as surreal as a chocolate Jesus. The iconography which presumably represents the ‘spirit’ of the Holidays is nothing more than a co-opted pagan winter Saturnalia that Christians for the last two thousand years or so have been trying hard to forget.
In fact, if you want to find the first real Grinch in history, you need only travel back to the time of real conservatives: the Puritans of England. Under Oliver Cromwell’s reign, Christmas was officially cancelled. During the English Interregnum, when England was ruled by a Puritan Parliament, Puritans sought to remove elements they viewed as pagan from Christianity—this effectively meant the entire holiday. We will bomb the holiday in order to save it!
Under Cromwell, in 1647, Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, replacing it with a day of fasting. They considered the festivities “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. Now that’s a true defense of the Christmas spirit!
Taking Cromwell’s lead, in Colonial America, the Puritans of New England outlawed Christmas celebrations in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The ban was eventually revoked, but by the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the US. And it wasn’t until the flux of immigrants in the next century (especially the good Irish and Italian ‘papists’) when the Christmas spirit would really take hold again.
So sadly, there have been moments when Christians themselves almost succeeded in destroying the Christmas holidays. But this isn’t one of them. In fact, one suspects that the only thing which can kill Christmas are the religiously intolerant set on defending their ahistorical sense of the season’s ‘spirit’ or the concomitant commercialism that seems to accompany the season every year.
I can’t wait for the right wing talking heads to start harping on that.
If Trump’s presidency signaled the end of a reasonable Democratic process in terms of legislative responsibility to the will of the people, the Republican’s Tax Bill signals the end of the economic compromise that was formed with our ruling class under Franklin Delano Roosevelt 75 years ago.
The broad outlines of that compromise are still in place in Europe and many other industrialized nations. It goes something like this: capitalism is allowed to drive primary parts of the nation’s economy with the understanding that a certain level of social order and cohesion is necessary for the benefit of all. To ensure that social order and cohesion, a social safety net is provided to those who may be the losers in the capitalist marketplace. In Europe, this broadly takes the form of unemployment insurance (the dole), nationalized healthcare, and sometimes nationalized pensions and education. In the United States this took the form of a patchwork of social safety net programs: Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (SNAP), Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, various grants for higher education and so forth.
The US was never as monolithic in its implementation of the social safety net, and never as generous. Reasons for that vary, but on the healthcare front, one large part of that was a tendency among Southern Democrats to be unwilling to have healthcare provided for blacks on an equal footing with whites. So any form of nationalized healthcare was voted down. There was also the Red scare, which effectively made both major parties ‘pro capitalist’ to a fault. This really hasn’t changed in the last 50+ years. As recently as last year, during a CNN town hall, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked if the Democratic party could move more left on economics, she replied, bluntly, “We’re capitalist,” or, in other words, no, we cannot move further left. She tried to nuance that blunt assertion with a few feel good statements about the need to look out for those less fortunate, but the bottom line is a disavowal of the initial compromise made 75 years earlier. This should probably be expected from the party which– back in 1992– made a deal with the devil and ushered in the era of ‘triangulation.’ –or third way politics, essentially arguing against– and then legislating against– the compromise Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made with the ruling class to provide for a social safety net. Instead, the Democratic party, under the Clinton administration worked through the legislative nuts and bolts of a transition to a purer form of capitalism that we now know as neoliberalism.
How did this happen? Since its inception, the social safety net in the United States had been fiercely attacked by Republicans. If you go back to the initial legislative battles over simple concepts like Social Security Insurance, Republicans at that time warned that the program would “impose a crushing burden on industry and labor” and “establish a bureaucracy in the field of insurance in competition with private business.”
“Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people,” Rep. John Taber (R-NY) said, arguing against the program.
This was nonsense, of course.
One of my favorite quotes from that era belongs to Republican Daniel Hastings of Delaware who worried feverishly that Social Security would “end the progress of a great country and bring its people to the level of the average European.”
Yes, irony abounds. One wishes sorely now that our people could be brought to the level of the average European.
Being Republicans, the fact that their arguments were floating free of any tangible mooring with reality didn’t bother them at the time, and hasn’t to this day.
Throughout the Reagan and Bush eras, there were Republican efforts at privatizing social security that failed, but that didn’t stop them from using scare tactics, suggesting that Social Security was insolvent, which is gibberish since social security is a trust fund. People pay into it, “contribute” throughout their working lives. The only way it can be ‘insolvent’ is if another entity (like Congress) decides to spend the money in the trust fund on something other than social security contributors. In other words, if congress steals the money in the fund, and then lies about it. Keep this note in mind.
Republicans also attacked other elements of the social safety net. At a campaign rally in 1976, Ronald Reagan introduced the so-called “welfare queen”:
“She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
Based loosely on the account of one individual, Linda Taylor, this ‘welfare queen’ myth misstates her criminal activity by failing to note that Taylor didn’t just rip off welfare agencies. She stole money from a host of other businesses, and defrauded private individuals, and was involved in a kidnapping and possible murder attempt. In short, she was a career criminal who was ultimately arrested and taken to jail. She was in no way an indicator of ‘welfare’ abuse, any more than an individual burglar is responsible for wide-spread home insurance fraud.
Individuals committing welfare fraud are, in reality, very rare and an incredibly small percentage of those legitimately receiving welfare. But Reagan managed to tap into the underlying racial resentment and fear surrounding any kind of mandated government assistance. “Welfare queen’ became a racialized symbol of all that was wrong with liberal programs to help the poor. And it didn’t stop there. Hopping on the bandwagon, Newt Gingrich infamously lamented a food-stamp recipient who used her benefits to fly to Hawaii at taxpayers’ expense. This, too, was gibberish. As anyone who has actually enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would know, benefits are tightly restricted to food products off of the shelf and can’t even be used to buy other necessities, such as diapers, much less a plane ticket.
Thanks to Reagan’s “welfare queen” and other propaganda efforts by Republicans and their allies, by 1989, 64 percent of Americans felt that “welfare benefits make poor people dependent and encourage them to stay poor,” This was all nonsense, but it set the stage for President Bill Clinton’s infamous ‘triangulation.’ Just as only a Republican could go to China, only a Democrat could take on welfare. And Clinton used the national mood as a political opportunity, declaring an end to “welfare as we know it” in 1996. Under his leadership, AFDC was eliminated and in its place was something called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF…
Temporary was the operative word.
No longer would poor families be able to draw on the government for material support. Now there was a five-year time limit on benefits AND a requirement that the applicant for aid would have to constantly be looking for a job. Worse, for the first time, the federal government gave states wide leeway with welfare funds, allowing them to be diverted to non-cash-payment programs. The intent was to allow states to fund workforce training, higher education, affordable child care, and other supports that would help women find employment. But in reality, there were almost no standards regarding what states could do—for example, some states allowed these funds to be used for classes that urged women to get married. Most significant, though, the dollar amount given to the states by the federal government, and the amount states were required to contribute themselves, was set at 1996 funding levels, with no mechanism for increasing it.
That meant states could run out of money and refuse aid to qualifying families simply because they no longer had the funds. It also meant the cash amounts given to each individual family were eroded by inflation. In July 2015, the highest average cash payment for a single parent with three children was only about $704 a month in California. In two states, Mississippi and Tennessee, benefits are less than $2 per person per day, and in 27 more states the program provides less than $5 per person per day.
Two years ago, Clinton finally acknowledged: “The poorest welfare families…are worse off, and we should do something for them. And all of us who supported it should admit that.”
If you ever wonder why there are so many people on your street corner with signs, you can thank neoliberals from either party. What Republicans started at the dawn of the welfare state, and neoliberalism and triangulation under Clinton continued – the refusal to acknowledge the implicit compromise between society’s needs and laissez-faire capitalism—the Republican majority in all three branches of government have pretty much finished this week.
Most of you know the basics of the current Tax Bill, but here they are again, just as a reminder.
According to the Tax Policy Center’s analysis of the final bill, in the first year, the top 1 percent of the wealthiest taxpayers get 20.5 percent of the benefits, but by 2027, they’ll get an amazing 82.8 percent.
And while regular folks will get a break of a few hundred dollars at first, not only do their breaks come with expiration dates, by 2027 every group earning less than $93,200 a year will on average see their taxes go up. More than half of American households will see a tax increase. What’s worse, of course, are the seemingly endless loopholes still packed into the 1000 plus page document, that are tilted heavily toward the already wealthy and well-connected. Add to that, the malicious elimination of the ACA individual mandate, which will likely force millions of Americans off of health insurance (estimates are up to 13 million), and you have the perfect storm for what remains of our 75-year-old compromise with capital.
One of the most telling contributions to the Senate debate over the Tax Bill came from Tom Carper, a moderate, business-oriented Democrat from Delaware. He pointed out that it wasn’t Barack Obama, or any other Democrat, who invented the individual mandate. It originated in a 1993 health-care-reform bill that John Chafee, a Republican senator from Rhode Island, put forward. It was subsequently picked up by another Republican, Mitt Romney, when Romney led the passage of a sweeping health-care law as the governor of Massachusetts. “It’s a Republican idea. It’s a market-based idea,” Carper said calmly.
But, of course, today’s Republican Party isn’t the Republican Party of Chafee or Romney. It’s the party of the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Robert Mercer, Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, ALEC, and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In many ways, this tax bill, with its huge breaks for major corporations and very wealthy individuals, is the logical corollary of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which legitimized the wholesale corporate purchase of political parties and elected politicians. As our democratic integrity got flushed away with the election of Trump and his acolytes, our economic integrity has been flushed away as well. We are left with whatever didn’t go down the bowl.
The wealthy interests that bankroll the Republican Party have now achieved a major item on their agenda. What remains to be determined is whether this victory will help bring down the G.O.P. in next year’s midterm elections before they can implement the second part of their strategy to destroy the social safety net in America completely– by slashing Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Paul Ryan has promised us this outcome; and it makes sense, as it’s the natural consequence of this tax cut. “You see,” the argument will go, “cutting these ‘entitlement’ programs are necessary to offset the dreadful deficits we now have.” What Paul Ryan and the Republican majority may or may not mention is that any mounting deficit will have been caused precisely by the unnecessary and wholly gratuitous tax cuts they just gave to some of the richest families on Earth.
See you at the polls. Or on the street.
by Jack Johnson