Regime Change

We now have a proto-fascist in the White House, breaking everything he touches. Trump is at war with minorities, gays, women, non-Christians, science, education, the environment, the poor, Congress, the Constitution, Mexico, Central America, China, Russia, and even European allies. Americans are always willing to make regime change elsewhere — but we sure could use some here.

Even if we were not in the middle of a Constitutional crisis, distracted by Trump’s chaos and his intentional destabilization of government, most Americans wouldn’t pay much attention to militarism and foreign policy. The appointments of John Bolton, Michael Pompeo, and Elliott Abrams were no doubt less compelling than the Mueller Report, Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings or James Comey’s firing. But they were chosen to throw bloody red meat to Trump’s “base.”

Elliott Abrams is a war criminal convicted of lying to Congress, though he was subsequently pardoned. Mike Pompeo is fond of threatening enemies with US invasion. Like Pompeo, John Bolton has never met a war he didn’t love, pressing for “regime change” in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Cuba, Yemen, North Korea, and Iran. With the selection of these three sociopaths, Trump is telegraphing plans for Venezuela and Iran. Like Iraq, both countries have long been in the crosshairs of American neoconservatives. The administration’s plans may be old but they’re reliable — coups, puppet regimes, and manufactured threats to the US and its allies. All depend on gullibility and attention deficit from the American public.

In March 2017, amid US sanctions and right-wing sabotage and violence which included ongoing assassination attempts, the Venezuelan Supreme Court granted Nicolás Maduro emergency powers and dissolved the National Assembly. The “old” legislature was replaced by the Constituent Assembly, which was originally formed to rewrite the Constitution. Since then Venezuela has been divided over the legitimacy of both the “new” and the “old” legislature. But this is what happens when a nation grants special powers to a leader, who then uses them to delegitimize the legislature. Since 2017 the “old” legislature has functioned as Venezuela’s opposition and — like it or not — the “new” legislature is now the people’s house. In 2018 Maduro was re-elected president of Venezuela, which — again, like it or not — should have answered the question of legitimacy.

But in January 2019, after receiving an OK from Vice President Pence, the chairman of the “old” legislature, Juan Guaidó, simply took microphone in hand and declared himself president of Venezuela. This was apparently enough legitimacy for the Trump Administration’s John Bolton, who then set about to create rebellion among the Venezuelan military. Guaidó follows a long history of US puppetry — the Pahlavis, the Somozas, Batista, Ngo Dinh Diem, Costillo Armas, Rios Montt, Chalabi, Micheletti, Karzai, to name a few. By recognizing Guaidó and then expelling Maduro appointees from their own embassy, the Trump administration is now trying to depose the head of a divided but democratically-elected government.

Yet, of all the chaos that Trump has unleashed, the threat of an attack on Iran is the most terrifying. Neocons have never been happy with John Kerry’s Iran deal, in which Iran and the US agreed to an accord that would keep Iran from enriching weapons-grade plutonium in exchange for relief from US sanctions. Despite zero evidence of violations by Iran, Trump withdrew from the deal and is considering prosecuting Kerry for violating the Logan Act — for speaking with foreign diplomats, as most former American diplomats do even after leaving their diplomatic posts.

To escalate the provocations even further, Trump denoted the Iranian Guard a “terrorist” organization. And last week, following the deployment of a carrier strike force and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf, the US accused Iran of sabotaging tankers. Two Saudi, one Norwegian, and one Emirati ship were allegedly attacked with improvised limpet mines close to the Emirates. Trump threatened to send 120,000 troops to the region, telling the press, “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that. They’re not going to be happy.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested that the sabotaging of vessels was a “false flag” operation and ascribed war noises to the work of the “four Bs” — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and White House national security adviser John Bolton, who in 2015 advocated bombing Iran. And if one looks at a map of US military bases surrounding Iran, it is hard to imagine why Iran would want to provoke the US.

Europeans, who remain party to the Iran agreement, are skeptical of Trump’s accusations. Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Foreign Affairs committee of the German parliament, downplayed American warnings of imminent Iranian attacks. He said that the BND (German intelligence) has not found any escalation in Iranian threats. In fact, Röttgen described the US warnings as mere “saber rattling, a show of force to demonstrate seriousness and to justify American foreign policy vis-a-vis Iran.”

But, after a generation of American wars in the Middle East, there is still an appetite for more. The Trump administration and its supporters believe invading Iran would be a “slam dunk,” as the Bush administration thought Iraq would be. Almost a generation has gone by since the first Gulf War and the US is still not out of Iraq. And after a generation, hundreds of thousands killed, and trillions of dollars squandered, the US still remains in Afghanistan propping up a puppet regime. Geniuses like Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton doubt it would take much to defeat Iran — “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike.”

Cooler heads remind us that a US invasion would be the Mother of all Quagmires. Juan Cole, a Mideast expert at the University of Michigan, published the “Top Ten differences between the Iraq War and Trump’s Proposed Iran War.” Among them:

  • Iran is 3.7 times bigger than Iraq — 1.5 million square miles, almost the size of Alaska
  • Iran has 3 times more people than Iraq — 81 million
  • Iran can mobilize 1.5 million paramilitary forces and 500,000 active duty personnel
  • While the Gulf War “Coalition” drew on NATO allies to fight Iraq, Europe is now skeptical of a war on Iran
  • Iraq’s neighbors were happy to see Saddam go; Iran still has many regional friends

Even FOX News host Tucker Carlson was concerned about Bolton’s influence. “More than anything in the world, national security adviser John Bolton would love to have a war with Iran. It will be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday [all] wrapped into one,” Carlson said.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has introduced a petition to block Trump’s unilateral entry into a war with Iran, and Nancy Pelosi reminded everyone that “the responsibility in the Constitution is for Congress to declare war. So I hope that the president’s advisers recognize they have no authorization to go forward in any way. They cannot call the authorization, AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force that was passed in 2001, as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now.”

Impeachment might be largely a formality in the almost certain absence of Senate prosecution of Trump’s crimes, but proceedings should be initiated anyway. Congress must insist on all its rights and powers, which include declaring war. As for Abrams and Bolton, they deserve tenures just as short as Anthony Scaramucci’s — if not cells at the Hague.

But if anyone should be getting regime change this month, please, let it be the American people.

Anyone but Trump

During the 2016 presidential campaign, faced with a corrupt proto-fascist, and not sure what it really stood for, the Democratic Party ran on a simplistic, fearful platform — “anybody but Trump.” Few remember now what else Hillary Clinton campaigned on — much less actually believed in, because her views on everything from abortion, gay rights, criminal justice, immigration, and trade had all “evolved” and it was difficult to untangle Clinton the Candidate from Clinton the Goldman-Sachs speaker — or Clinton the peddler of influence from her $2 billion family foundation.

After her stunning loss the corporate media began pushing the message that Democrats had been too focused on “identity politics” — that concern for gays, women, minorities, and immigrants had robbed the party of its rightful win.

Then, as now, Republicans whined about identity politics (knowing full-well that white privilege itself is the most toxic example), called Democratic safety-net programs “socialist,” railed against “political correctness” and lied about the basic science behind human gestation and environmental warming. And Democrats took the bait, wishing they had appealed more to the mythological unicorn — the fabled white swing voter.

Now, as the 2020 presidential campaign begins, faced with the same corrupt, and now much more dangerous proto-fascist — and still unsure of what they really stand for — Democrats have again trotted out the same simplistic platform — “anybody but Trump.” And this time around, it looks like it will be up to a white candidate to appeal to the white swing voter.

At least fifteen of the twenty Democratic contenders will never survive the primaries. As of May 13th, the leaders were Biden (39.8%), Sanders (16.3%), Warren (8.3%), Harris (7.7%), and Buttigieg (6.8%). Not one candidate of color is running in double digits. Two Democratic candidates (Sanders and Warren) are progressives — idea people who want to fix a long list of economic, social, and criminal justice wrongs. They and Tulsi Gabbard are also the only candidates to question American militarism. But this year the Democratic Party is not interested in grand ideas — not even those diametrically opposed to the President’s. “Anyone but Trump” is their only idea. Sadly, Sanders and Warren’s campaigns are dead out of the gate.

Instead, the Democratic Party leadership sees Biden and Buttigieg as the best shot to appeal to White Middle America — by turning their backs on progressive agendas Sanders and Warren and some of the newly-elected House representatives have championed. In Las Vegas this week Pete Buttigieg dropped the hammer on identity politics. This was a tip of the hat to MAGA America and a slap in the face to minorities. Polls show that Buttigieg has the support of 18% of South Carolina’s voters and 8% of the state’s Democratic voters. But among African-Americans that percent is a well-deserved zero.

Among millennials and young black voters Biden is doing relatively well in the polls for the moment. Unless the septuagenarian suffers a health crisis, he looks to become the next Anointed One. But young people are unreliable voters. And so are dispirited and disrespected voters. As Charles M. Blow pointed out in the New York Times, “there is part of the Biden enthusiasm, and to a lesser extent the energy around candidates like Bernie Sanders, that focuses too heavily on the fickle white, working-class swing voters and is not enough focused on the party’s faithful.”

For Blow the Anointing of Joe Biden is an insult to loyal black voters. “Democrats want to hold constant their support from women and minorities even as they chase the votes of people hostile to the interests of women and minorities. What does it say that the Democrats lust after disaffection rather than rewarding devotion? Democrats tell their base that this must be done, that the prodigal [white] children must be brought home, as if that is their only path to victory. It is not. That is a lie. And, it’s a lazy lie.”

Not only is it a lazy lie, it’s a crazy one as well. White swing voters, who in 2008 and 2012 voted for Obama and Biden and then flipped to Trump in 2016, just aren’t going back anytime soon. Not only are these voters unicorns; the fervent hope that Democrats can win them back is a delusion.

The other path to power, as Blow hinted, is Steve Phillips’ New American Majority, an idea he developed in his book Brown in the New White. The idea is neither new nor very difficult math. If you add up white progressives and progressives of color you’ve got a numerical majority that can beat Republicans — not in 2040, when whites will be a numerical minority, but right now. The gotcha, says Phillips, is that the Democratic Party needs to start offering better reasons for registered African-Americans voters to show up at the polls — like representation, support, and money. Anointing Biden, then, is just a prescription for another electoral loss.

So for the moment it looks like it’s going to be Biden in 2020, and if it is — then Democrats are going to lose. 2020 could have been about ideas and programs to truly make this country a better place. Instead, it seems to be contracting into a referendum on replacing one set of hair work and dental veneers with another.

Orwell hadn’t even heard of Facebook

This week Donald Trump tweeted that his administration was “looking into” the “banning” of conservatives on “liberal” social media. With a conservative stranglehold on talk radio and powerful news outlets like FOX and Sinclair effectively functioning as mouthpieces for Trump’s policies, on the face of it Trump’s charges seem ridiculous. But Trump’s criticism hit an unexpected nerve with friends of free speech. Censorship in social media may not exclusively target conservatives, but it’s a very real thing.

A while ago I taught a citizenship class. If you read though the one hundred official U.S. citizenship questions, only one amendment — the First — gets any love. Not one question mentions any of the other amendments to the Constitution — and for good reason. It would be tough to explain school prayer, bowing to Evangelicals on abortion and adoption, stop and frisk, illegal wiretapping, blanket surveillance, cruel prison punishments including death by mystery cocktail, violations of habeus corpus, excessive bail, the lack of speedy trials, voter suppression, systemic racism, Constitution-free borders, limited “free speech zones,” and prosecutorial practices that effectively deny an accused person the right to a jury trial.

And what would be the point? Many of my students came from places where American “democracy” has propped up dictators and taught genocide and torture to their militaries. Or maybe these prospective Americans just looked around and noticed that, around here, civil liberties don’t really apply to immigrants or people of color.

Nevertheless, the citizenship questions give star billing to the First Amendment, which “guarantees” freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the right to petition the government. The First Amendment is clearly the beating heart of American democracy — for the writers of the citizenship test — and it’s almost an article of their faith that it grants us rights found nowhere else on earth.

But in truth the First Amendment is a completely toothless piece of text that does little to stop abuses arising from telling people what you think.

Read the fine print. The Constitution promises that the government won’t go after you for your views or interests — although it certainly has and does. Donald Trump, for example, tried to go after 1.3 million people who may have clicked on a website dedicated to disrupting his low-attendance inauguration. But besides attacking the First Amendment, the president’s sweeping demand for ISP data was also a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Reporters sans Frontieres ranks the United States 43rd in press freedom, a sign it’s pretty much on life support. And when Trump began targeting the Black Lives Matter movement, it was only the most recent example of a government that has always done expressly what the First Amendment forbids.

Now while the First Amendment theoretically keeps the government from silencing you, there’s absolutely nothing to stop an employer, a social or political organization, a business, or a school from censoring, expelling or punishing you. Adjunct professor Lisa Durden found this out when she was fired for defending Black Lives Matter on FOX News — not because the popular teacher had done anything wrong at her community college. White supremacist Richard Spencer lost his gym membership because of his views — not because of any specific behavior at the gym. Juli Briskman was canned by her employer for a third party photo showing her giving Donald Trump the middle finger as his motorcade sped past her while she was bicycling. The excuse given by Akima, a federal contractor — Briskman “violated” the company’s social media policy.

Americans regard China’s Great Firewall — which censors what Chinese citizens can view online — as a significant feature of authoritarian rule in that country. Yet the only difference between Chinese and American censorship is that here in the United States it’s been outsourced to corporations and employers — and, increasingly, internet service companies.

Twitter censored Politwoops, a group exposing backtracking and lying by politicians who delete or alter their ill-considered Twitter posts. Facebook censors content for both China and for the United States. When activist Mary Canty Merrill penned an open letter, “Dear White People,” she was censored by Facebook. Conservative Google employee James Damore wrote an internal memo criticizing his company’s diversity programs and was immediately terminated.

Some think the Internet is open and free. But remember — the Internet began its life as a defense industry (DARPA) project, and U.S., European, Chinese, Saudi, and other laws actually compel service providers to monitor and censor content while also delivering personal data (either lawfully or under secret programs like PRISM) to spy agencies. The U.S. government even forces ISPs to lie about it after the fact.

The internet, also as a consequence of the many lunatics who post on it, has become a gratuitously censored place. Social networks go out of their way to sanitize “offensive” or “upsetting” content. Google, Facebook, and Twitter — for all the hate speech they manage to monetize — feel obliged to protect us from beheadings, nursing mothers, the aftermath of terror attacks, radical manifestos, and “harmful” or “dangerous” hyperbole from both right and left. Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are both sitting in jail now because they posted proof of U.S. war crimes, including a video of the 2007 murder of two Reuters reporters by the U.S. military.

A dangerous consequence of overt censorship is self-censorship. With enough positive or negative reinforcement people simply stop telling you what they really think. Or, if they persist, someone will censor them for simple lack of “civility.” In the aftermath of the 2016 election I observed this phenomenon as Bernie and Hillary people duked it out. One moderator of an Indivisible group decided to shut down debate by insisting on acceptable views, acceptable discussion, acceptable tone, and acceptable news sources.

In the preface to one edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell noted that popular opinion is often a greater threat to freedom of thought and expression than authoritarian government, and that anyone who chafes against prevailing orthodoxy often “finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness” by his own friends.

… the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves

Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

And Orwell hadn’t even heard of Facebook.