Stuff you should read and watch #2

Best stuff I’ve read:

C.J. Polychroniou’s interviewed development economist, Jayati Ghosh, on the WTO and intellectual property (IP) rights

On the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement:

Susan Sell has provided a detailed and devastating account of how 12 powerful men from pharma, software and entertainment effectively lobbied to make the U.S. government insist on inclusion of this agreement in the set of agreements negotiated at the Uruguay Round of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which was signed in 1994. The TRIPS agreement intervened in legal systems of all member countries, by putting the burden of proof on the accused rather than the accuser, adopting a much looser definition of “invention” that allowed much more private control of knowledge, and then by making all the rules much stricter and more stringent so that it became much easier to claim infringement. This effectively grants a monopoly over knowledge that companies can use to limit production and increase their own market power. Over the past decades, this has become a major limitation on the dissemination of knowledge and technology for the common good, and essentially benefited large companies who now hold most of the IP rights in the world.

On Big Pharma’s bogus justification for IP rules:

Patents and other intellectual property rules are usually seen as providing a necessary financial reward for invention/innovation, without which technological change would either not occur or be more limited. The pharma industry argues that costs of developing new drugs are very high and there are high risks involved, because the drugs may not succeed even after years of effort, and so they must be granted property rights over this knowledge and be allowed to charge high prices thereafter.

But actually, pharma companies typically only do the “last mile” research for most drugs, vaccines and therapeutics: the bulk of the research — not just the basic science, but also more advanced discoveries that enable breakthroughs — is publicly funded. Big companies increasingly just acquire promising compounds and other knowledge from labs and smaller companies that benefit from public investments. Pharma companies in the U.S., for example, have spent relatively little on R&D — much less than they spend on advertising and marketing, and a small fraction of what they pay out to shareholders or spend in share buybacks designed to increase stock prices.

Eva Bartlett on Syria’s recent presidential election:

And that’s the crux of it: Syrians aren’t just celebrating the leader they overwhelmingly love and respect, they’re celebrating the defeat of this terrorism in their country and of the imperialists’ regime-change project in Syria. A Syrian-American friend, Johnny Achi, flew to Syria expressly to vote in the elections. He told me“I’m a Syrian citizen and have lived in the United States for about 30 years. I’m here in Damascus to exercise my rights and duties as a Syrian citizen, since the US chose to close our embassies. As long as the embassies are closed, we’re going to keep making the trip here, to exercise our duty and our democratic right.”

“I chose Douma, in eastern Ghouta, under the ‘rebels’ until 2018, to show that there is a big turnout here, that people are happy to be back in a government-controlled area. Everyone I talked to is so jubilant that they got rid of all of Jaysh al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman, and all those brigades that were making their lives miserable,” he said. 

Eva Bartlett’s “Douma: Three Years On”:

It is high time to put the Douma hoax to rest. It’s also beyond time to acknowledge the huge sacrifices of the Syrian army (and allies) in fighting terrorism and restoring peace to Syria. Meanwhile, while cynical Western war propagandists mock the Syrian presidential elections, Syrians in Syria and around the world hold massive demonstrations in support of their president, as they did in 2014.

Gareth Porter wrote the best report on the leaks from Daniel Ellsberg revealing attempts by the Joint Chiefs to start a nuclear war with China:

It was the eagerness of the Joint Chiefs for a nuclear war against China, rather than the policy of communist China, that presented the most serious threat to American security. Although the circumstances surrounding the U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan have changed dramatically since that stage of the Cold War, the 1958 Taiwan crisis provides a sobering lesson as the US military gears up for a new military confrontation with China.

Best stuff I’ve watched:

Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton interview with economist Michael Hudson

On the US economic recovery:

It’s obvious that the United States economy is going to be in real trouble. Once the Covid crisis stops uniting the country in a feeling that we’re all in this together – and certainly in New York, where I live, in August, the freeze on real estate evictions, by renters, and foreclosures on mortgagees is going to end, and it’s expected there will be 50,000 New Yorkers thrown into the street. They’ve very kindly decided to postpone this until August, so at least they can sleep in the park, and don’t have to begin sleeping in the subways until maybe October.

There’s no way that any Wall Street economist that I know can see if the economy is really going to recover. The stock market is going way up, thanks to a Federal Reserve policy of subsidizing bonds and stocks, with 83% owned by the 1% of the population. But the Federal Reserve is not backing any spending into the actual economy.

On Bill Gates:

And the policy that Gates is promoting in agriculture, instead of replenishing the soil is poisoning it. So if you wouldn’t want your worst enemy to be in charge of taking over American agricultural land, you wouldn’t want him to have any role in that whatsoever.

The fact is, he’s really stupid. Once you get $100 billion, your IQ drops 30%. And so he’s suffered from that. You want to just sort of belong. You’re not the same person anymore. And once you inherit money, right there, your IQ goes down 20%. So now he’s operating with 50% of an IQ.

An interesting interview with John McWhorter on curse words and anti-racism:

There are people who seem to think of their purpose as being to demonstrate that they are not racist, to police the rest of us for racism, and to defenestrate and shun people who they deem to be not anti-racist enough. Their idea is that they are doing something that is maximally good for humankind.

The hypocrisy of the New York Times on misinformation

On Wednesday, The New York Times streamed a subscriber-only event, “How to Save Ourselves from Disinformation”. It was the latest in a steady stream of misinformation reporting and columns that are invariably presented as righteous attempts to help Americans understand the truth about what’s happening in their country. The stated goal of this event in particular was to explore the roots of false information online and ways that we can stop some of it and root out its causes. In reality, these types of events and reporting are mainly about convincing Americans we are facing a false information threat that is unique and existential and that there’s not much that we can do about it. They serve as the groundwork for a larger initiative by the liberal media establishment and its allies in the U.S. government to censor or flat out shut down political opponents. This one was no exception.

A quick aside: to avoid confusion, I want to define a few terms that will be used frequently in the piece. “Misinformation” refers to information that is false or inaccurate. “Disinformation” is a form of misinformation created intentionally to deceive. “Censorship” is any attempt to substantially obstruct speech.

The event was organized into three separate segments: an discussion among Times technology columnist Kevin Roose, former far-right videographer Caolan Robertson and former far-right “YouTube radical”, Caleb Cain; a conversation between Times technology reporter Sheera Frenkel and comedian Sara Silverman, and a discussion of survey results featuring Frenkel, fellow Times technology reporter Davey Alba, and MIT management science and cognitive sciences professor David Rand.

Frenkel kicked off the event:

Four or five years ago, we would be talking about foreign actors and the ways in which they sowed disinformation into our online ecosystems. Today, the problem has become more peer-to-peer homegrown sources.

It’s not hard to understand who Frenkel was talking about here. Just about the entirety of the 45-minute-long event discussed disinformation and misinformation from and by right-wing folks. There were a few lazy, virtue-signaling mentions of false information being a bipartisan issue, but the participants didn’t leave any room for confusion about whom we should consider the problem.

If the Times were serious about tackling the over-exaggerated “serious problems” of false information, we would be having an earnest discussion about the most significant sources of disinformation. You want to talk about “homegrown sources”? Let’s talk about the major ones: the American intelligence community and mainstream outlets including the Times.

Remember the Iraq War? That little blunder was made possible by disinformation originating from operatives in the US government and then peddled by just about every reporter at every major US media outlet. For a more recent example, how about the SALT Caucus? That example involves a bipartisan group of 32 homegrown members of Congress united in pushing a fantasy that tax breaks for the wealthy somehow benefit working-class homeowners. How about the short story concocted by intelligence officials claiming Russia put bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan? How about Donald Trump being a Russian asset? All of these originated from homegrown sources. When disinformation originates from Times-approved sources like the intelligence community, everything is fine and dandy. But if it comes from anywhere else, it is a full-scale catastrophe. So reporters from the Times should be honest about who they are really referring to when they use the term “homegrown sources”: political opponents.

In Kevin Roose’s discussion with former far-right radicals Robertson and Cain, he asked if steps he has personally urged YouTube to take are making a difference:

YouTube has done a lot in the couple of years that we started talking to try to address the popularity and spread of extremist ideas on its platform. It’s changed its recommendation algorithm. Some of the people you, Caolan, have made content for have been de-platformed off YouTube. Do you think that this stuff that YouTube’s been doing has actually made a difference, has actually put a dent in the movements that drew you in to the far right?

Both men said that in part those steps have made a difference, but not really. Cain mentioned that deplatforming people has only slightly, but that no matter who is deplatformed and who is censored, it’s not going to get rid of the problem of radicalization and disinformation. Which is, of course, correct. Disinformation has existed forever because there are always going to be bad actors in human life. Robertson believes that we shouldn’t be deplatforming people at all, and instead the “quick fix” is for YouTube’s algorithm to not recommend extremists or extremist-adjacent folks. Roose doesn’t explain how he thinks the problem should be handled.

Thankfully, he wrote a piece back in February which nicely outlines proposed solutions for what he refers to as a “reality crisis”. One of the solutions Roose floated was promoting what he calls a “reality czar”. The czar would oversee a multi-agency task force that coordinates with the tech companies to tackle problems of extremism and misinformation. To be clear, Roose is advocating for two of the most powerful entities on the planet to collaborate to decide what constitutes false information. What could possibly go wrong?

These are the types of solutions that events like this one aim to facilitate because they serve the interests of establishment power. The process is relatively straightforward: paint the picture that the problem is very serious and complex, that steps taken thus far haven’t solved the problem, and that more drastic measures must be taken. Then with that justification, take those drastic measures, like Congress hauling tech CEOs before them to answer for misinformation and tech companies shutting down social media apps, to name a couple.

The next part of the event featured Sheera Frenkel in conversation with Sara Silverman. In this segment, Silverman likened the Times to a beacon of truth in a grimy, lie-filled world, and commented that finding the truth on the Internet is hard because it “seems like everything is the New York Times“. Her obvious implication here was that viewers should accept as truth everything that the Times produces. But how do viewers determine which other sources they can trust?

A good way to decide who to listen to is people who are obligated to report the truth, who will suffer consequences if they report something that isn’t true, who are beholden to have sources that are true, might be a more trustable news source than maybe a news channel that must label themselves entertainment. Stuff like Fox News is keeping people we love company all day long. It’s their babysitter.

What happens if, as is the case here in the real world, the exact opposite is true? What if reporters at the New York Times and mainstream liberal media outlets face no consequences when they report something that isn’t true, like the case of Taylor Lorenz? What happens if they aren’t beholden to have sources that are true, like every national security reporter at the Times? What happens when reporters are regularly rewarded for reporting lies in service of the correct narrative, like for instance, that misinformation is an oh-so-serious, existential threat? What does the public do then? Should it still unquestioningly believe everything the Times puts out, then? I’m no fan of Fox News, and Silverman is correct in saying that it is entertainment. But let’s remember that as each day passes, the New York Times is transforming into the exact same thing.

Silverman’s answer to Frenkel’s question about what simultaneously devastates her and gives her hope is illuminating:

The exchange of ideas. The hope that somehow the truth can get through. But I do know that history is written by the winners. And that can be scary. And that’s a really kind-of bone chilling thing to realize. But then Mr. Rogers says, “Look for the helpers”, and there’s a lot of helpers.

This explains a lot about what is behind the liberal establishment’s fixation on disinformation and the spread of misinformation. What is actually devastating to Silverman, the folks at The New York Times, and the Democratic establishment as a whole isn’t the exchange of ideas. It is that the wrong people are exchanging the wrong ideas. If one believes that ideas are wrong or bad, one should defeat them with better ideas. The Democratic establishment, as seen over the past several decades with their failed agenda, doesn’t have any better ideas. So now they must censor.

The event ended with a discussion among Alba, Frenkel and MIT Professor Rand regarding the results of a survey designed to determine if Americans’ propensity to share content online is correlated to whether or not they believe that content is true. A representative sample of the American public and Times subscribers were given the same survey. Six news headlines, three that were true and three that were false, were shared with participants. Participants were asked to determine which articles were true and how likely they were to share each article.

Rand explained that the general public did pretty well in determining which stories were true or false, but that a large number still still shared the false stories. This, according to him, is representative of a wider misinformation problem;  not only is there a problem of people knowing whether something is true or false, but even when the people know the truth, they will still share inaccurate information. Furthermore, Rand explained that one-sixth of the survey participants from the American public shared inaccurate information when they knew the information was false.

How did the New York Times subscribers do?

You guys (Times subscribers) were doing even better than the American public, which is maybe not so surprising…whereas the rep sample, even though they thought the false headlines were false, they were still willing to share them. For you guys, it looks quite different, and there is basically no sharing of inaccurate content.

Why did the Times subscribers do better? In sum, Rand said that it could be that Times subscribers are simply better, smarter, and more discerning consumers of news. The problem lies with the one-sixth of survey takers who intentionally shared inaccurate information, not with the more discerning Times readers. What a nice, neat conclusion for the Times. Sarah Silverman tells us that we shouldn’t worry about the Times when it comes to disinformation. And Rand tells us that we don’t have to worry about New York Times subscribers when it comes to the sharing of misinformation. No matter that the Times, as detailed earlier, is one of the biggest purveyors of disinformation.

At the end of the event, Frenkel left viewers with a few recommendations. She told them to think about accuracy before sharing, not to retweet or like something just because it shows up on their feed (unless it’s a New York Times article, one can only assume), and to explore the sources of information before sharing it. That’s all reasonable advice. But how does the public sol? In this event, we given no potential solutions. There are two reasons why. First, because it’s an unsolvable problem. There are always going to be people intentionally creating and spreading false information. Second, the Times doesn’t actually care about solving it.

Reporters from the New York Times can’t stop disinformation, and they know it. That won’t stop them from continuing to churn out reporting and opinion pieces claiming that we’re living in a unique age of false information from which the American public must save itself. They’ll keep pretending that they are the righteous ones ensuring that the truth prevails. They’ll continue to disseminate their own disinformation fed to them by the intelligence community and turn a blind eye to other disinformation, so long as it comes from allies. And all the while, they and their friends in the mainstream liberal media, the halls of Congress, and the White House will continue to agitate for the censorship and shutdown of their political opponents.

Image “Misinformation” by 3dpete used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

Paul Krugman’s very bad column

When I saw the title of Paul Krugman’s column, “The Banality of Democratic Collapse”, a small part of me hoped that he would attempt to dissect some of the failures of the Democratic Party. That hope was extinguished after I read the second paragraph and remembered that I was reading the New York Times. Why does Krugman think “American democracy is hanging by a thread”? Cowardice and acquiescence to conspiracy theorists from Republican careerist politicians.

Unsurprisingly and true to form for a Democratic party loyalist like Krugman, nowhere in the piece will you read about the Democrats’ role in the mess we face. No mention of their embrace of Reagan anti-unionism, no mention of NAFTA, no mention of the bailouts instituted by Democratic regimes, and certainly no mention at all of neoliberalism, a doctrine that both parties have embraced. Instead, he makes excuses for the Democrats:

Professional Democrats had to negotiate their way among sometimes competing demands from various constituencies. All Republicans had to do was follow the party line.

Krugman implies that things would be a lot better if Republicans didn’t “consistently prefer to get its advice from politically reliable cranks”, and then lavishes praise on the Biden administration for hiring all of the policy experts. No matter to him that experts advising Democrats helped bring on some of the most disastrous outcomes of neoliberalism.

Sadly, we shouldn’t expect to see any self-awareness, let alone accountability, from the Democrats and their faithful servants like Paul Krugman any time soon.

Stuff you should read and watch (and a picture of my pup)

Ella was happy to get her cone off the other day.

Below you’ll find of some of the best stuff I’ve read and watched recently. I’ll be doing this weekly. Hope you get something out of it.

Best stuff I’ve read:

The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills

I’ve been reading this for the past few weeks. It’s dense with jargon, and it doesn’t flow that well. But that’s pretty much what you might expect from a sociological analysis of American society. It is nonetheless fascinating and immensely helpful in, you guessed it, understanding power in America. Some of it is undoubtedly outdated (it was first published in 1956), but its main tenets still ring true. I’m going to try to write a book review making connections to today’s America, but I might end up scrapping it simply because I feel I’m not knowledgable enough to do it justice. For now, here are some passages I’ve read in the past few days that I find especially interesting.

  • On the rise of the military and the decline of diplomacy:

“The military ascendancy and the downfall of diplomacy have occurred precisely when, for the first time in United States history, international issues are truly at the center of the most important national decisions and increasingly relevant to virtually all decisions of consequence. With the elite’s acceptance of military definitions of world reality, the professional diplomat, as we have know him or as we might imagine him, has simply lost any effective voice in the higher circles.”

The Power Elite, p. 206
  • It’s hard to argue with this:

In America, diplomacy has never been successfully cultivated as a learned art by trained and capable professionals…

The Power Elite, p. 211
  • A quote from a demoralized Albert Einstein in response to the neglect of fundamental science in favor of the militarization of science:

In the context of distrust, no less a scientist than Albert Einstein publicly asserted: ‘If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.’

The Power Elite, p. 217

The Age of Kayfabe by Freddie deBoer

I’m a big fan of Freddie deBoer. He consistently produces some of the best commentary on American life in a sea of self-proclaimed experts that think they know what the hell is going on. He’s on the money yet again with this essay.

“Look past self-interest and self-preservation and you’ll find that everybody knows that the way left spaces work now is horribly broken and dysfunctional. The problem is that thinking people who would ordinarily object don’t because they’ve been convinced that this is some sort of special moment pregnant with progressive potential, and that is more important than rights, compassion, or fairness. So we maintain a shared pretense that things are cool the way you go through the motions on an awful date where you’re both aware you’ll never see each other again.”

Freddie deBoer, “The Age of Kayfabe”

Best stuff I’ve watched:

Thomas Frank talks about his book Rendezvous with Oblivion

Like most of what Thomas Frank writes, his collection of essays published in 2018, Rendezvous with Oblivion, turned out to be prescient. I watched a talk he gave on that collection earlier today, and his reading of a passage on the sad state of journalism from a 2016 essay stood out to me:

Meanwhile, between journalism’s insiders and outsiders—between the ones who are rising and the ones who are sinking—there is no solidarity at all. Here in the capital city, every pundit and every would-be pundit identifies upward, always upward. We cling to our credentials and our professional-class fantasies, hobnobbing with senators and governors, trading witticisms with friendly Cabinet officials, helping ourselves to the champagne and lobster. Everyone wants to know our opinion, we like to believe, or to celebrate our birthday, or to find out where we went for cocktails after work last night.

Until the day, that is, when you wake up and learn that the tycoon behind your media concern has changed his mind and everyone is laid off and that it was never really about you in the first place. Gone, the private office or award-winning column or cable-news show. The checks start bouncing. The booker at MSNBC stops calling. And suddenly you find you are a middle-aged maker of paragraphs–of useless things–dumped out into a billionaire’s world that has no need for you, and doesn’t really give a damn about your degree in comparative literature from Brown. You start to think a little differently about universal health care and tuition-free college and Wall Street bailouts. But of course it is too late now. Too late for all of us.

Thomas Frank, Rendezvous with Oblivion

Aaron Maté’s interview with Norman Finkelstein on Gaza

“Do concentration camp guards have the right to self-defense?”

Big Pharma gets its way with voluntary licensing

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that G20 leaders would adopt a declaration recommending voluntary licensing (more on this in a bit) to increase COVID-19 vaccine production.

A little over two weeks ago on May 5, U.S. President Joe Biden announced his administration’s support for waiving intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines. Between these two separate announcements, pharmaceutical companies, oligarchs, government leaders, and their respective minions conducted an all-out war against the the idea of a COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver. A variety of media outlets published the hysteria and intense opposition.

Pfizer CEO Alfred Bourla whined in an article published at CNBC that the IP waiver would subject poor Pfizer to competition for the “raw materials we require to scale our production.” Bourla also attempted to stoke fear about the waiver, stating that it would open the way for unsafe vaccines. German chancellor Angela Merkel expressed similar sentiments, warning us that the waiver would have “serious implications” on production capacities and safety standards. The Washington Post published an op-ed featuring a statement from Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex) informing us that the waiver would “reward China with access to U.S. innovation”. The Hill published a truly hysterical op-ed yesterday written by Grover Norquist denouncing the Biden Administration for implicitly endorsing “the rampant theft of American intellectual property by China”. A May 9 op-ed written by former Democratic congressman Ron Klink appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette arguing that the waiver would only sabotage the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. And a letter from Senate Republicans urging the Biden Administration to reverse its position and calling the position a gift to China has been featured in Bloomberg and other mainstream outlets.

On May 14, Lee Fang revealed that a lot of the opposition we were reading were straight up talking points distributed by the pharmaceutical industry. The three main talking points:

  • Sharing vaccine production expertise would hurt the American job market and give allow China to exploit American innovation.
  • A COVID-19 waiver would help Russia and China and allow China to “gobble up vaccine supplies and technology”
  • Waiving COVID-19 intellectual property would “undermine the global response to pandemic and compromise vaccine safety”

Indeed as evidenced above, these talking points in direct opposition to the IP waiver appeared again and again all over mainstream media.

Bill Gates has taken a different approach to the COVID-19 vaccine IP waiver battle. After facing widespread ridicule for staunchly opposing it, Gates pulled a 180. Two days after Biden’s announcement, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released an announcement of its own in support of a “narrow waiver during the pandemic.” This is a calculated move from Gates that allows him to give the illusion that he is in support of the COVID-19 waiver while undermining it in less obvious ways.

Back to voluntary licensing. Over the past few weeks, it has gained traction in the press as a method to improve vaccine access. Prashant Yadav, a former strategy leader of supply chain at the Gates Foundation, has advocated consistently for voluntary licensing. Yadav is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, an organization to which the Gates Foundation has contributed at least $46.8 million in funding for active projects spanning 2018-2023. Yadav went on a media tour recently continuing his voluntary licensing advocacy and urging us to restrain excitement about the positive impacts that would be brought about with a COVID-19 vaccine waiver. He contends that the vaccine waiver would have minimal impact in the short term and that the larger issue is production capacity. More specifically, Yadav believes we should focus on helping existing manufacturers, or the handful of companies like Pfizer who have a stranglehold over IP. Furthermore, we should help them expand production capacity, know-how, and in turn profits from COVID-19 vaccines. While making these points, Yadav is always very careful to praise the US announcement of support for a COVID-19 vaccine IP waiver. Now I’m not saying that Yadav is a proxy for Bill Gates. I don’t have the proof for that allegation. I’m merely suggesting it’s a possibility.

What exactly is voluntary licensing, you might wonder? It works like this: a patent owner like Pfizer gives authorization to a generic company in the form of a voluntary license to produce the patented vaccine. The patent owner runs the show. It defines the standards of production, quality requirements, and the markets in which the generic company can operate.

Is voluntary licensing effective? For pharmaceutical companies and patent owners, yes. For the rest of us, not so much. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has conducted extensive research into voluntary licensing and concludes that they “often come with abusive licensing terms and practices that needlessly undermine access to medicines for others”. It also concludes that the voluntary licensing model forces people and health programs to place an over-reliance on pharmaceutical companies’ voluntary actions. Furthermore, voluntary licensing models lack transparency and regulation.

A recent example of these shortfalls can be seen with remdesivir, a drug used to treat COVID-19. According to more research from MSF, Gilead was granted the primary patent for the base compound of remdesivir in over 70 countries, making voluntary licensing one of the only ways to overcome the patent. Gilead then secretly signed voluntary licensing agreements with only a few select manufacturers. This excluded “nearly half of the world’s population from accessing more affordable generics”, including “many countries with manufacturing capacity”. MSF warned that a “dangerous precedent” was being set and that “voluntary actions of companies are not reliable”.

So this is what the leaders of the biggest economies in the world have decided to go with. The U.S. is of course a member of the G20, so surely they have a comment on the latest news, right? Not yet. And that makes me even more confident in a suspicion that I’ve held for a while. The Biden administration was never serious about the COVID-19 IP waiver. Another victory for Big Pharma.

Some thoughts on Israel’s latest murderous campaign

From a protest in Atlanta during Operation Protective Edge, 2014
  • There isn’t a single American politician willing to meaningfully oppose Israel. Tweets, fiery floor speeches, and letters of condemnation don’t count. There’s nothing stopping these virtue-signaling liars from forming a coalition like the spineless SALT Caucus members did in defense of their corporate masters. At the very least, can we get a unified call for all Americans to support BDS? Until someone actually does something of substance, we shouldn’t take what they say seriously. And yes, I am including the Squad in this broad stroke.
  • As many have pointed out, Palestinians across historic Palestine are more unified against Israel than at any other time in recent memory. Ahmed Abu Artema, one of the organizers of the 2018-2019 Great March of Return, notes that a key difference between now and Israeli offensives in the past is that Palestinians demanded a response to Israeli aggression from Hamas. And for the first time in decades, millions of Palestinians across occupied Palestine participated in a general strike. Some have compared this historic strike to the Land Day Protest on March 30, 1976. Then, Palestinians also unified and launched a general strike in response to Israel announcing that it was going to steal large swaths of Palestinian land.
  • As ceasefire talks occur between Israel and Hamas, let’s not forget how little regard Israel has for ceasefires. It has a long history of breaching them. The report I just linked only represents the most prominent examples. There are perhaps 100+ other instances. A particularly egregious example happened in 2014. Israel violated a ceasefire minutes after it went into effect by bombing and murdering an 8-year-old Palestinian girl. It is thus not unreasonable for one to automatically assume that any ceasefire Hamas and Israel reaches will be violated in due time by the Israelis.
  • Over 72,000 Palestinians have fled their homes amidst Israel’s latest murderous campaign. The majority have sought refuge in the 58 UNRWA schools across Gaza. There are already reports of strikes very close to the schools. One can’t blame these internal refugees if they don’t feel the safest in these schools. In 2014, Israel murdered 45 people, including 17 children, in three separate attacks on three different UN schools across Gaza. Of course, there was no reasonable or lawful justification for such attacks. I fear that this will happen again.
  • Much attention is being rightfully directed toward deaths and injuries from Israel’s criminal bombings. We should also pay close attention to another important goal of Israel’s bombing campaign: further decimating civilian infrastructure in the Gaza strip and historic Palestine. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Israel has destroyed 156 buildings comprised of 672 housing and commercial units. Israel has damaged 50 educational facilities, including 2 kindergartens. Al Mezan Center for Human Rights reports that Israel is bombing large tracts of open farmlands in an attempt to eliminate the capacity to produce food and other important crops. Government properties, banks, mosques, and paved road networks are also being obliterated. Already having been on the brink of collapse for a long time, the healthcare system in Gaza isn’t being spared from Israeli bombing. OCHA reports that 6 hospitals and 11 primary healthcare centers have been damaged, including one hospital that is not even operational because of lack of electricity. Like all humans, Palestinians need access to clean water to survive. Israel seems determined to make sure that access is severely limited. It has bombed Gaza’s electrical network, reducing average power supply to 3-4 hours per day, and thus causing severe reductions in water supply and sanitation. The Palestinian Water Authority reports that regular water supply has fallen by more than 40 percent as a result. OCHA estimates that 800,000 people lack regular access to safe piped water.

The misguided optimism of Sunrise Movement

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sunrise Movement is a prime example of the misguided optimism about Joe Biden that progressive groups displayed in the lead-up to the election. Progressive groups told us that Biden would be receptive to our key demands. They told us that he could be pushed left. They scoffed when we presented historical evidence calling this into question. Now, there is absolutely no question that they have been proven wrong.

Biden made promises to Sunrise with his climate platform, and we are now seeing him abandon those promises quite rapidly. Accepting a Democratic candidate’s policy promises at face value is the same exact mistake progressive groups made with their support of Obama in 2008. Progressive groups bought into the hype Obama was peddling about reining in Wall Street, ending the Iraq War, doing something about climate change, and providing affordable healthcare for everyone. As we know, he did not deliver on any of these. If this mistake is made again, progressive groups will continue to have their key demands ignored.

The dust is still settling from the election in November. And wouldn’t you know it, Biden is doing exactly what many people, like myself, warned he would do. His actions are a continuation of those he has proudly taken throughout his nearly 50-year career in politics: pushing for cuts to our social safety net, defending American imperialism, and locking up Black and Brown people at record numbers. Any suggestion that Joe Biden has changed or will change is even inconsistent with Biden’s own admission that he is “not sorry for anything he’s ever done”.

Much work has been done analyzing Biden’s Cabinet picks and how they will push destructive neoliberalism and US imperialism. To name just a few, The GrayzoneDan CohenThe Daily Poster, and Caitlin Johnstone have great analysis on this front. I encourage you to check out their work, if you haven’t already.

One of the main rallying cries of people who successfully shepherded those on the left into voting for Biden was that we will have a unique opportunity to push Biden left. This, they said, rested on the idea that Biden would be receptive to the left’s demands once in office and with the right pressure, might actually acquiesce to progressive groups’ key demands. Already, this excessively optimistic thinking has been proven misguided. A key example of this thought process is demonstrated by the Sunrise Movement.

Before I dive in, let me say that I believe that most of the Sunrise activists truly are well-intentioned and their activism is rooted in the sincere desire to try to save the planet. I just happen to think that they were duped and that they need to acknowledge and learn from it. The lesson to be learned here is that in the future, progressive groups like Sunrise need to have no illusions about the intentions of Democratic candidates. Candidates will always be subservient to their corporate and Wall Street donors, first and foremost. Thus, they should not accept anything candidates promise at face value that goes against these donors’ interests, like Sunrise did with Biden’s climate platform.

In an interview with Rising after the election, Lauren Maunus, Legislative & Advocacy Manager with Sunrise, stated that toward the end of his campaign Biden largely embraced a style of climate policy that ensures we aren’t “addressing climate change in an incremental, technocratic way”. It is hard to overstate how naive this is. Anyone who follows politics at even a surface level knows that what candidates say on the campaign trail and in their platforms is not very indicative of what they will do in office. Don’t believe me? Take a look at what happened with Barack Obama.

Maunus goes on to say that Biden was “elected on this popular mandate, and we (Sunrise) will hold him accountable to that”. This mandate, of course, never existed. Data from the election shows that Biden’s election was due in large part to support he gained from suburban white voters, many of whom voted Trump in 2016. I hate to break it to Sunrise, but these simply aren’t the type of folks pounding the pavement and agitating for a Green New Deal.

Biden’s appointments around climate, energy, and the environment demonstrate precisely the opposite point Maunus is making, that we should expect piecemeal, technocratic reforms that will not save us. Take for example, his appointment of Brian Deese as his top economic advisor in the White House.

Deese recently spent his time as head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, which holds massive stakes in the energy companies that fuel the global climate crisis. Some liberals have touted this as a step in the right direction. They say Biden is bringing on a guy who improved BlackRock’s environmental practices. But that is an assertion that is incredibly hard to square with the fact that, according to Vasudha Desikan, political director of Action Center on Race and the Economy, BlackRock still invests heavily in companies that fuel “environmental devastation while profiteering from Black and Indigenous communities”.

BlackRock and the companies it props up are not interested in the radical change we need to tackle this crisis. They are much more interested in making us believe that they are doing something substantive, while doing the absolute bare minimum turning a profit destroying the planet. The major energy companies that BlackRock supports financially have a long history of greenwashing campaigns designed to make the people believe they are making progress.

Let’s turn to Biden’s appointment of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) to lead the White House Office of Public Engagement. This position is highly important to Sunrise Movement and other climate-focused progressive groups, as Richmond will “serve as a liaison with the business community and climate change activists.” So, in line with the big game Biden talked about climate issues, Richmond has a history of being an ally to environmental activists, right?

Wrong. As reported by Jacobin, while his home state of Louisiana has been devastated by the climate crisis “Richmond joined with Republicans to vote to increase fossil fuel exports and promote pipeline development”. Furthermore, as Sludge reported, Richmond is “not just a big oil and gas booster, he’s also a top Democratic recipient of the industry’s money”, and “he received $340,750 from the industry over the course of his House career”. This doesn’t exactly sound like the type of guy who is going to be receptive to Sunrise’s demands.

To their credit, Sunrise came out and condemned this appointment with no shortage of outrage. But what did they expect? Were they that naive to think Biden would do anything otherwise? Or were they overestimating their power in this situation?

It gets worse. According to the New York Times and The Guardian, it appears that Biden is strongly considering tapping Ernest Moniz for either energy secretary or a new international climate envoy post. Moniz was Obama’s energy secretary and since then has joined the board of directors at one of the worst polluters in America, Southern Company. In addition, Moniz is on record denouncing the viability of the Green New Deal and staunchly advocating for fracking. He has also served as an adviser to BP and General Electric. God help us all if he gets appointed to any position in a Biden administration. In a just world, he would be banished from being even remotely close to international climate work.

So we have seen that, like Obama, Biden likely will deliver on very little (if anything) of what he promised in his campaign platform. Instead, he will usher in a wave of “environmental progress” that when stripped of its shiny veneer will simply be more environmental destruction.

Finally, I want address the nauseatingly romantic idea propagated by Sunrise that Biden has an FDR-like moment and that he might seize upon it if pushed appropriately by progressive groups. You can see this idea introduced by one of the Sunrise activists at the tail end of the video here.

First off, this should have been laughed away immediately because the labor conditions prior to the New Deal era were so drastically different than the ones we have today. We had far stronger unions then, and boy were they a fiery, no-holds-barred group of people. These unions were comprised of people like Eugene Debs, who would be disgusted with so-called progressive leaders that we have today. The strength of today’s labor unions has been severely degraded, in large part due to the neoliberal policies that Joe Biden has been pushing since the 1980s.

But even if we accept the notion that this is an FDR-type moment for Biden, we know now that he will not capitalize on it. All we have to do is compare Biden’s appointments thus far to the people that FDR surrounded himself with to usher in the New Deal. As Thomas Frank details in Listen Liberal, FDR’s closest confidant, Harry Hopkins, was a little known social worker from Iowa. Jesse Jones, FDR’s appointment to run his bailout program, was “a businessman from Texas with no qualms about putting the nation’s most prominent financial institutions into receivership”. FDR’s leader of his Antitrust Division, Thurman Arnold, “wrote a scoffing and derisive book called The Folklore of Capitalism”. I don’t even need to do a compare-contrast to show how starkly different these folks are from Biden’s appointees.

Progressive groups that successfully shepherded voters into betraying their principles and voting for Biden need to reckon with the consequences of their actions. Many of us knew before just how remarkably naive their belief was that they could push Biden left or that he would be receptive at all to their key demands. Now we have tangible evidence that clearly shows their naiveté.

We saw how quickly Obama abandoned his platform after being elected, and we are now seeing Biden abandon his at a similar rate. Progressive groups like Sunrise need to be able to cut through the noise and operate with the understanding that Democrats will make as many rosy promises as necessary to garner their support. They must understand that Democratic Presidential candidates will always do the bidding of their corporate and Wall Street donors. Obama’s lofty promises earned him the support of progressive groups and their voters, and then he abandoned them immediately. Biden made similar, albeit less rosy promises, and he too is abandoning them. Why wouldn’t the next Democratic candidate do the exact same thing, knowing that it’s worked with the past two Democratic Presidents?

I don’t have all of the answers to this problem by any stretch of the imagination. However, I think a good start for progressive groups would be withholding their support entirely if all they get in return are tepid promises about their key demands. Perhaps their support should be contingent upon deliverance on their key demands in advance.

Obama’s shameless speech in Flint

Photo Credit: CNN

Yesterday, former President Barack Obama spoke at a campaign rally for Joe Biden in Flint, Michigan. Obama spent most of his time excoriating President Donald Trump for his failures and trying to convince attendees that former Vice President Joe Biden is a decent human being. The most disgusting part however was what he didn’t say. Obama made only a fleeting reference to the water crisis that has gripped the city of Flint for the past 6 years.

Obama stated that Biden would “secure environmental justice. Something that’s important to Michigan. You know something about that”. Of course, Obama didn’t mention that the water crisis began during his Presidency nor that the measly support he and Biden provided was nowhere near adequate to rectify the problem. Michael Moore assailed Obama for his inaction in 2016: “Unless you’re bringing the entire U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dig up and replace the 75,000 lead pipes, plus the Attorney General to arrest Governor Rick Snyder, then this is just another photo-op and half-baked list of new promises we don’t need.”

But apparently his administration’s response was good enough for him. He appeared in front of the media in Flint less than a week after Moore’s post and shamelessly performed a publicity stunt, drinking what we were supposed to believe was clean Flint water. It didn’t seem to matter to Obama that numerous public health experts still maintained that the water was unsafe.

Six years after the Flint water crisis began, many Flint residents still won’t drink the water. People are breaking out in hives while taking showers. The water still smells like sewage. The state of Michigan’s own website doesn’t even declare Flint’s water safe to drink. All of this makes Obama’s half-assed reference yesterday to the ongoing crisis in Flint especially infuriating.

We’re supposed to believe that Biden and Obama care about the people of Flint. We’re supposed to believe that Biden has a plan for reducing their misery. If either of these were true, why didn’t either of them make it a priority to get Flint the help it needed when he they were in office? Biden surrogates are touting the endorsement of Gov. Rick Snyder, who helped perpetrate and cover-up the crisis, on national television. Any presidential candidate with a shred of decency would have vehemently rejected the endorsement of a man who should be in prison. He won’t even commit to a ban on fracking, which poisons groundwater and pollutes surface water across America. Forgive me, but in the words of Kendrick Lamar, “miss me with that bullshit.”

Obama spent a lot of time talking about Biden’s character. He told the crowd that he admires Biden “as a man who learned early on to treat everyone he meets with dignity and respect.” Joe might have learned about these values, but he hardly practices them. What dignity and respect were paid to the millions of people in this country who are needlessly in prison because of his crime bill? What about the millions of innocent dead because of interventions he supported in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, to name just a few? What of the Black people he said “ain’t black” if they don’t vote for him? How about the elderly voter he called “fat” and “too old to vote” for him?

Obama went on to say that Biden “tries to live the values we cherish: honesty, hard work, kindness, humility, and responsibility.” Of course, this is rubbish. The man who bragged about trying to cut Medicare and Social Security isn’t exactly the kind of guy that oozes with kindness. Nor is Joe Biden a beacon of honesty as demonstrated by his serial plagiarizing in college and while running for President in 1988.

“The presidency doesn’t change who you are. It shows who you are. It reveals who you are”, Obama said. This may be the truest thing Obama said yesterday. The presidency certainly exposed Obama as a fraud. We don’t need a Biden presidency to show us that he is a racist and militaristic ghoul who merely pays lip service to the values he claims he holds. But we’re probably going to get one anyways.

“The cops are not our people”

Hundreds of peaceful protesters marched in west Philadelphia Tuesday night after a rally at Malcom X Park demanding justice for the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. by two police officers.

The rally began shortly after 6 PM. It was organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) Philadelphia chapter and endorsed by the Philadelphia Student Union, Neighbors for Healthy Community Development, Black Lives Matter Philly, Black Alliance for Peace, Protect the Protesters, LILAC Philly, and Penn Community for Justice.

Ashley, a 17-year old high school senior and Philadelphia Student’s Union member, addressed the crowd first:

“A black man was killed yesterday in front of his mother, and that is something that we should all be angry about.”

Next up, a teacher and organizer with PSL railed against the Philadelphia Police Department:

“They had a mother. They had a father. They had a twin. They were loved by somebody. And the police thought that they could take their life without a thought. . . I have never once in my life felt safe around a police officer. They are not here to protect me or any one of us.”

The speakers made clear that one of their fundamental demands is complete community control of the police.

“You know who I’ll call when someone happens in my streets?” the teacher asked the crowd. “I’ll call my neighbor. . . If someone was having issues on the block, we’ll talk to them. That’s what being a neighbor is. The cops are not our neighbors. The cops are not our friends. The cops are not our people. Our neighbors are our people.”

An organizer with Black Alliance for Peace urged the crowd, “We must come up with ways for treating people who are having a mental crisis without calling the police. I said ‘without calling the police.’”

Mike, an organizer with Workers World Party and longtime resident of Philly, pointed out that Philadelphia police officers have no understanding of the Black way of life in Philadelphia or Black people in general:

“They don’t understand us. They don’t understand our customs. They don’t understand anything. So when they are put in a position where they feel like their lives are put in danger, it’s very easy to do what they did yesterday. When you come into a very poor neighborhood, you have to find value in that neighborhood.”

Community members across the country have long criticized police departments for a lack of understanding and connection to the communities in which they police. According to an investigation by NBC10, The Philadelphia Police Department recruits officers from all over the country. Currently, 1 in 5 city officers live in the suburbs. Organizers like Mike contend that policing would be far less destructive if officers lived in the communities in which they work.

Krystal Strong, an organizer with BLM Philly, delivered the final and most moving speech of the night:

“I stood in front of the house of Walter Wallace Jr. I listened to his aunt talk about how good a dude Walter Wallace Jr. was. I listened to his cousins talk about how the cop who killed him had a taser on his hip, and still chose to shoot him 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 times.”

On Monday, Philadelphia police chief Danielle Outlaw said that neither officer involved in the shooting had a taser. Strong’s statement directly contradicts what Outlaw claimed.

Strong continued:

“And we are watching the way that Walter White is becoming a symbol. And we are losing sight of the fact that this was a person! Not a fucking hashtag! This is a man who got married three weeks ago. Who has children. Who has a child on the way! . . . I want all of you right now to take a moment to think about the life that was lost yesterday. Walter Wallace Jr. was his fucking name!

Strong was angry that energy from summer-long protests in Philadelphia is being directed toward getting Joe Biden elected:

“The first chance some of y’all got, y’all took your asses home, and started talking Biden-Harris. How the fuck we spent all summer talking about ‘Abolish the Police’ and then the first chance we get, we sitting up here talking about holding hands with the author of the crime bill and someone that calls themselves a ‘top cop’. The math ain’t mathin’! Which one is it?”

Strong then made the connection between the struggle of Black people in the United States and the oppressed in places all around the world:

“Last night, when the police car was burning up, I listened to a sister shout, ‘This is happening in Nigeria too! This is happening in Nigeria too! It’s happening all over Africa. And what she was saying is, Black people are fighting for their lives in every corner of this fucking planet. . . We are all fighting against capitalism, against white supremacy, against policing, against imperialism.”

The rally concluded after an evocative appeal from Strong:

“We need to be fucking clear about what we are fighting for! There is no reforming this shit. If you thought we could reform this shit, then why is Walter Wallace Jr. dead? . . . it’s not just defund either. We need to rip the root out of the fucking soil and build something new!”

After the conclusion of the rally, chanting protesters marched north on S. 51st Street to the S. 51st and Market St intersection. At the intersection, a small disagreement broke out between leaders of the march on whether to head west, toward the heart of west Philly, or east toward downtown.

The majority of protesters ended up heading west on Market St. From there, they turned and began marching south on S. 52nd St. On Market St., police presence was oversized. Multiple police cruisers, vans, trucks, and buses lined the street along with over one hundred police officers, many of whom were on guard outside storefronts.

As the crowd marched south on S. 52nd St., dozens of cars headed north honked in solidarity with the marchers. I spoke with a few residents and business owners as the marchers passed by. Every person I spoke with supported the demonstrations and marches but made a clear point to condemn the looting and violence that had erupted the night prior.

Reverend Jones of The Fisherman’s House World Evangelistic Church on 52nd St. commented, “I think it’s great that everyone is out here.” When I asked his reaction to looting in the neighborhood the night before he said, “Of course it’s terrible. We need to protect our communities.”

Marchers eventually hung a right to march down Pine St. At the intersection of 55th St. and Pine, a line of officers clad in riot gear blocked the crowd from advancing. At this point, hundreds of protesters were crammed in an area stretching from the front of the barricade all the way back to S. 53rd St.

The highlight of the standoff between protesters and police at 55th St. and Pine came when a Nissan pickup truck (not an Amazon van as I first suspected) appeared and slowly advanced west on Pine St toward the police barricade. A man stood on the hood of the truck as it advanced, shouting “Black Lives Matter”. But it was the signage at the back of the truck that drew applause and cheers from the crowd.

A three-sided digital sign was attached to the back of the truck, cycling tributes to Walter Wallace Jr. The truck remained near the front of the barricade for 15–20 minutes and then backed away. One of the images was a drawing of Wallace Jr. smiling with the words “Justice for Walter Wallace Jr.” Another displayed “De-Escalate, Don’t Shoot!”

It needs to be emphasized that it was an entirely peaceful 4 hours that I spent with protesters in west Philadelphia last night. Many in the media are desperately trying to tie looting from the past two nights to the peaceful protests that occurred at the same time. This report should put those incorrect conclusions to rest, at least when it comes to Tuesday night.

Black people in Philadelphia are mad as hell. They have spent the entire summer and fall in the streets fighting for their lives, and their people are still being slaughtered. The anger and passion that I saw on display last night was righteous. Black people not just in Philadelphia continue to be annihilated by racist police departments, the prison-industrial complex, and an economy that has determined they are second-class citizens.

They are who we thought they were

Megan Cassella and Alice Miranda Ollstein published an article at Politico this morning titled “Biden eyes GOP candidates for Cabinet slots.” This should not come as a surprise to those who understand that Democrats and Republicans agree on a wide variety of issues. In fact, it is remarkably on brand for a man who spent over three decades in the Senate shitting on liberal initiatives and legislating like a Republican. Nonetheless, some progressives are confused by the move.

Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project, reacted: “I don’t understand why someone who says, ‘I am the Democratic Party,’ would then hand benefits to someone who’s not a Democrat.” What’s not to understand here? The Democrats and Republicans are in unison on many significant issues, most notably a murderous foreign policy and an economy dominated by billionaires and soul-sucking corporations. Remember the CARES act, that criminal piece of legislation which initiated the largest upward transfer of wealth in history? It passed with near unanimity in the House and 96–0 in the Senate.

Biden appointing Republicans to his Cabinet seems almost a certainty when you consider how he legislated during his 34-year tenure as a US Senator. David Sirota shrewdly pointed out on Useful Idiots last week that Joe Biden “came of political age in the 80s and 90s and in that era it was considered the smartest, shrewdest, most savvy politics to triangulate yourself against the base of the Democratic Party.” In 1995, he bragged about his adherence to conservative values in consistently pushing for cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. As recently as late 2018, Biden gleefully proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. So again, why is Hauser confused that a man who legislated like a Republican for three decades would nominate a Republican to his Cabinet?

We need to be completely honest with ourselves about both the Democratic Party and Joe Biden. It’s common knowledge at this point that the Democratic party represents the wishes of billionaires and corporations. And if we honestly assess his legislative record as a Senator, we can only come to the conclusion that Joe Biden is not our ally. Once we realize this, we’ll no longer be surprised or confused when he does something against the will of the people. And if he’s elected, we’ll be better positioned to fight back.