An American divide

McClatchy reports: “The establishment is anybody with big money who can get to the Congressmen and lobbyists,” said Judy Surak, a nurse from Clemson, South Carolina.

All over South Carolina, ask the people reveling in the music at Greenville Heritage Main Street Fridays, or starting their day with homemade onion sausage at Lizard’s Thicket on Two Notch Road in Columbia to define the establishment, and they usually echo Surak.

They often add a gentle qualifier: They don’t want to blow up the political system. They just want it to be more responsive, to work better.

“The country’s long-term problems have to be fixed within the system we have,” said Mark Cruise, a Columbia executive.

The most wary tend to be better educated, higher earning, older voters, according to the national poll. They tend to see establishment figures easing in and out of lucrative, comfortable jobs, climbing ladders to success that seem unavailable to the rank and file who populate South Carolina’s office cubicles.

Of 78 members of Congress who left after the 2010 elections, four out of five found work with lobbying firms or clients, state or federal governments or political action committees.

One of Bill Clinton’s former White House spokesmen hosts an influential network Sunday talk show. NBC hires Chelsea Clinton as a “special correspondent,” paying her a reported $600,000 annually, far above the typical pay for a reporter with no journalistic experience.

The ties are intricate and deep. Five Treasury secretaries in the past three presidential administrations have either headed big Wall Street firms, or became top executives after leaving their jobs.

Every member of the U.S. Supreme Court has at least one Ivy League degree. Every president elected since 1988 is an Ivy Leaguer. So are Clinton and Trump.

Even among Republican presidential candidates who insist they’re running against the establishment, establishment ties have served them well.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, promotes himself as a maverick, but has two Ivy League degrees and worked in state and federal governments before being elected. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio was a congressman for 18 years, then was a senior executive at Lehman Brothers’ investment banking division. Trump’s company is building a luxury hotel five blocks from the White House.

Somehow, many see Trump through a different lens.

“He has all he ever wanted. He doesn’t have to bother with this,” explained Elaine Verma, a Kiawah Island court reporter. “He just has the best interests of the United States at heart.” [Continue reading…]

Nicholas Kristof writes: I personally made the mistake of regarding Trump’s candidacy as a stunt, scoffing at the idea that he could be the nominee. Mea culpa.

We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing [the first being that the news media gave Trump $1.9 billion in free publicity, and the second being that the media treated Trump as a farce]: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated. “The media has been out of touch with these Americans,” [Ann] Curry notes.

Media elites rightly talk about our insufficient racial, ethnic and gender diversity, but we also lack economic diversity. We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.

All this said, I have to add that I don’t know if more fact-checking would have mattered. Tom Brokaw of NBC did outstanding work challenging Trump, but he says that when journalists have indeed questioned Trump’s untrue statements, nothing much happens: “His followers find fault with the questions, not with his often incomplete, erroneous or feeble answers.” [Continue reading…]

Once a system is perceived as rigged, its agents lose social authority — and that opens a space in which authority is up for grabs and the loudest voices will be those who claim their own authority on the basis that they operate outside the establishment. Paradoxically, authority is easily transferred to those who possess none.

Someone like Kristof can spend as much time as he wants talking to jobless Americans, but that won’t change his status as a member of the establishment. It won’t increase his level of influence among those Americans who are open to the influence of people like Alex Jones.

Half of Republicans don’t believe in evolution. 40% of conservative Republicans think global warming will never happen. 43% of Republicans think that President Obama is a Muslim.

Alex Jones now claims that “the establishment is announcing that they do intend to cancel the presidential election in this country.” And he says the mainstream media is being encouraged to report it “like it’s no big deal.”

In a Facebook video, Jones hands over to his cameraman, Buckley Hamman, who says: “Whether or not Trump is the person that we all hope and believe that he is, he is our last best hope at this point…”

“That’s right,” Jones interjects, “the establishment is scared of him.”

“They don’t have a right to come steal the elections and steal the government and be run by foreign interest, like communist China and all these other foreign governments and Saudi Arabia, telling us we can’t have Donald Trump. Donald Trump could be a monster and I would say we have to vote for him because these foreign mass murderers tell us he’s the worst guy in history.”

Hamman adds: “He is aware, he is open and he is conscious to the idea of the world being enslaved. And he is pissed off about it and he doesn’t want to have it happen any more… And look at how brilliant he is at manipulating the media.”

And who does Trump hold up as an authoritative media source? Alex Jones.

The problem in a broken political system where the mainstream media has largely abandoned its responsibility as a fourth estate, is that the doors get flung open to false prophets — people whose passion for “truth telling” and “exposing lies,” can seduce an audience ripe for a populist, xenophobic message.


How extensive is the ISIS threat inside Europe?


Rob Wainwright, chief of Europol, says that security authorities are focused on some 5,000 suspects who were radicalized in Europe and went to fight in Syria. Many of these battle-hardened fighters have now returned.

The Washington Post reports: The French newspaper Le Monde and the Belgian broadcaster RTBF reported that video monitors had captured images of another possible accomplice, who is believed to have slipped away on the Brussels subway. The report could not be immediately confirmed.

Authorities also suggest that the Brussels attackers — two of them brothers — were spurred into action as security crackdowns and raids closed in.

Days before the attacks, counter­terrorism police had raided their Brussels safe houses. An ally who took part in November’s Paris carnage was shot and captured by authorities. And Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, a 29-year-old Belgian with a thick rap sheet, wrote that he did not want to wind up in a prison cell, Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said Wednesday.

Bakraoui and his younger brother, Khalid, were among the three suicide bombers in the back-to-back strikes: tearing apart a Brussels subway car and shattering the city’s main airport terminal. At least 31 people were killed and 300 injured in the bloodiest attack on Belgian soil since World War II.

Bakraoui detonated a suitcase full of nails, screws and powerful explosives at the airport, killing himself in the process, Van Leeuw said. So did Islamic State bombmaker Najim Laachraoui, 24, who is also believed to have prepared explosives for the Paris attacks, according to an Arab intelligence official and a European intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

An unidentified man who left an even larger suitcase of explosives at the airport is believed to still be at large, he said. That suitcase did not immediately detonate, sparing Belgium even more casualties.

Laachraoui’s involvement draws the boldest line yet between the Paris attacks and those in Brussels. His DNA was found on explosives in the Paris attacks, and authorities believe that he was versed in assembling powerful explosives from ingredients readily available. His participation in two attacks suggests that the Islamic State is increasingly able to strike on European soil — although his death may also mean that he feared imminent capture by European authorities.

Terrorism experts regard bomb­makers, especially those trained in handling sensitive explosives, as among the most valuable and protected members of a terrorist organization. It is highly unusual for them to participate in suicide attacks themselves. [Continue reading…]

At a moment such as this, politicians, security officials, security experts, and other commentators all want to exercise caution and avoid understating the risks of further acts of terrorism.

Public awareness of risks is obviously an essential element that helps facilitate ongoing security operations and this is not the time to encourage anyone to be less vigilant.

Nevertheless, the close ties between the Paris and Brussels attacks and the fact that the individual believed to have been the bombmaker in both attacks killed himself on Tuesday, suggests that with the possible exception of a very small number of individuals at large, nearly all the culprits in these atrocities are now either dead or in detention.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be other groups who follow in their footsteps. That’s why the danger of further attacks is real. Even so, there often seems to be a tendency to extrapolate from specific events, wider connections that don’t necessarily pertain.

Donald Trump and other Islamophobes like to evoke images of terrorists being provided refuge inside Muslim communities — the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels has frequently been characterized as a “haven” for extremists.

Yet when the decisive break in their investigation came for Belgium police last week, it was through their discovery of an a hideaway where it was evident that the fugitives appeared to be receiving no outside support.

As the New York Times reported:

The turning point in the case came last week when the police raided an apartment about six miles from Molenbeek, seeking clues but believing it to be empty.

Instead, they were met with gunfire. They killed the gunman, Mohamed Belkaid, a 35-year-old Algerian who had already been linked to the Paris plot. But two men escaped. And when the police entered the apartment, they found large quantities of ammunition, an Islamic State flag — and Mr. Abdeslam’s fingerprints.

“There was no electricity, no water, no gas,” said Ahmed El Khannouss, the deputy mayor of Molenbeek. “He was living in catastrophically unhygienic conditions.”

That two individuals happen to cross paths in the same bar or go to the same school, might turn out to be as consequential as the connections they’ve made fighting in Syria.

Often, the small stories turn out to be as, if not more significant than the big stories. Every life is filled with the random, messy details of happenstance.

In other words, although political, sociological, and ideological lenses are all useful, we need to avoid deterministic conclusions that make terrorism appear inevitable. It isn’t. Ultimately it hinges on choices made by individuals.

The fact that European security services have as many as 5,000 suspects in their sights underlines the challenges they face in attempting to keep track of these individuals.

At the same time, this number may be misleading if it conjures an image of a hidden army scattered across the continent. Moreover, this representation itself risks empowering these individuals with a sense that they remain part of a movement, when in reality they may now be utterly isolated.

These are individuals who really deserve to be called dead-enders.


Would Trump consider launching a tactical nuclear strike against ISIS?

That was a question posed by Fred Ryan, publisher of the Washington Post, in a meeting between Donald Trump and the paper’s editorial board on Monday.

You mentioned a few minutes earlier here you’d knock out ISIS — you’ve mentioned that many times. You’ve also mentioned the risk of putting American troops in a danger area. If you could substantially reduce the risk of harm to ground troops, would you use a battlefield nuclear weapon to take out ISIS?

Trump: I don’t want to use… I don’t want to start the process of nuclear. Remember, one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counter-puncher.

Note that Trump wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons — he merely said he wouldn’t start the process.

Last month Reuters reported that the theft of radioactive material last year “has raised fears among Iraqi officials that it could be used as a weapon if acquired by Islamic State.”

Fears of a nuclear-armed ISIS were fueled today by Britain’s defense minister who confirmed, “this is a new and emerging threat.”

If ISIS was to use a dirty bomb, or, so to speak, start the process, Trump seems to have just strongly inferred that he would throw a “counter-punch” with a tactical nuclear strike. Indeed, maybe the existing warnings are sufficient for Trump to see a process in motion.

It’s hard to imagine a strategic blunder of greater proportions as this would subsequently be seen by friends and foes alike both as an unjustifiable use of American power (deterrence means nothing to ISIS) while also opening the door to a new age of unleashed nuclear force.

That the Trump team is oblivious to the value of refraining from using nuclear weapons became evident in December when campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson said on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor: “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?”

Towards the end of the Post interview, Trump returned to the issue of nuclear weapons after being asked:

Do you think climate change is a real thing? Is it man… human caused?

Trump: I think there is a change in weather. I am not a great believer in man-made climate change… not a great believer. There is certainly a change in weather that goes, and if you look they had global cooling in the 1920s and now they have global warming, although now they don’t know if they have global warming. They call it all sorts of different things — now they’re using extreme weather I guess more than any other phrase. I am not — I know it hurts me with this room and I know it’s probably a killer with this room — but I am not a believer (perhaps there’s a minor effect) but I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change.

Don’t good businessmen hedge against risks, not ignore them?

Trump: Well, I just think we have much bigger risks. I mean I think we have militarily tremendous risks. I think we are at tremendous peril. I think our biggest form of “climate change” is — that we should worry about — is nuclear weapons. The biggest risk to the world to me — I mean I know that President Obama thought climate change — to me the biggest risk is nuclear weapons. That is climate change. That is a disaster. And we don’t even know where the nuclear weapons are right now. We don’t know who has them. We don’t know who is trying to get them. The biggest risk for the world and for this country is nuclear weapons — the power of nuclear weapons.

Trump’s thinking process is primitive.

As is sadly commonplace, he doesn’t understand the difference between weather and climate. He uses the language of an anti-intellectual who conspiratorially believes that terminology is designed to bamboozle the uneducated — as though scientists keep on tossing out new phrases all of which simply mean changeable weather. He thinks climate change and extreme weather are interchangeable terms.

But recognizing that as an expression climate change has an emotive yield — that its users hope to generate alarm — he uses it as he has used it before, to circle back to nuclear weapons.

Rather than convey that he truly understands the gravity of having control of a nuclear arsenal, Trump hints that he’s starting to get a tantalizing glimpse of what it might mean for him to grasp that power — and use it.

Would he launch a nuclear strike against ISIS? Trump clearly sees the maximum value in leaving the world guessing.


Progressive only on Palestine?

Yesterday, I saw someone on Facebook express his disgust for Hillary Clinton’s speech at AIPAC by concluding that the most dangerous presidential candidates are first Clinton, second Cruz, and third Trump.

Underneath this outrage there clearly lurked a tenuous hope that Clinton’s message might have been different — that along with the predictable pandering there might have been a modicum of truth telling.

Still, it makes more sense to be disappointed that any politician chooses to speak at an AIPAC conference rather than disappointed by what they end up saying after having crossed that threshold. Everyone knows in advance that these are servile and self-serving exercises.

If we need to score such performances in some way, the criteria on which they should be assessed are their measures of cynicism, shamelessness, gall, hyperbole, and obsequiousness. By those measures, everyone tends to compete very closely.

For that reason, it’s debatable how much value there is in analyzing the specific content of any AIPAC speech when there is arguably no other venue in which such little weight can be attached to what anyone says.

Nevertheless, there is a risk that a small constituency of American voters, on the basis of her AIPAC speech (and her political history), are now leaning in the direction of believing that it would be worse to see Hillary Clinton enter the White House than it would be for Donald Trump to be elected.

Phil Weiss writes:

If there was any doubt that Hillary Clinton is running to the right of Donald Trump on Israel, she removed it this morning with a fist-pumping hard-right speech to the Israel lobby group AIPAC that mentioned Israeli settlements just once, in passing, and continually derided the idea of American “neutrality” in the conflict, which Trump has embraced.

Often projecting an adamant posture in the speech, Clinton said she was willing to use force against Iran if it violates the Iran deal, praised Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and promised to invite the PM to the White House in one of her first acts in office. She concluded the speech by thrusting her fist in the air as she vowed to take the relationship to the “next level” so that Israel and the U.S. could face the future together.

When Trump addressed the AIPAC conference yesterday afternoon, he offered a clue of how the “neutrality” of a Trump administration would work:

When I’m president, believe me, I will veto any attempt by the U.N. to impose its will on the Jewish state. It will be vetoed 100 percent.

He also said:

The United States can be useful as a facilitator of negotiations, but no one should be telling Israel that it must be and really that it must abide by some agreement made by others thousands of miles away that don’t even really know what’s happening to Israel, to anything in the area. It’s so preposterous, we’re not going to let that happen.

And in the most loyal expression of fealty to the Zionist lobby, Trump promised:

We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.

Let’s assume that Trump is no less cynical than any other politician in serving up the sentiments that AIPAC wants to hear. Would it be worth voting for him on the basis of some tentative hope that he might turn out to be a great Middle East deal maker? Or, simply because you imagine that in relation to Israel, Clinton could be worse.

Hell no!

The fact that for some people, Palestine is the only issue, doesn’t actually make it the only issue. It just means they have chosen to reduce politics to the singular focus of their own passion.

Ironically, for some Palestine watchers, as humanitarian as their sensibilities might be, in recent years their focus has become so tightly constrained, they have largely averted their gaze from the worst humanitarian crisis of the twenty-first century — even as it unfolds right next door in Syria.

To be open-minded about a Trump presidency solely on the basis that on a few occasions he has broken ranks with the pro-Israel political establishment, is to overlook the fact that whatever his actions on this issue might turn out to be, he would certainly be more active in many other arenas — active in ways that pose all kinds of adverse consequences.

Even if one adopts a thoroughly agnostic position and decides that it’s impossible to predict what a President Trump might do, the question is: Do you want to take the risk of finding out?

This much we already know: Trump is a demagogue. He is vain, ignorant, extraordinarily arrogant, and deceitful. He promotes xenophobia and mob violence. He is a misogynist and a bully.

However dark your view of the U.S. presidency might be, Donald Trump isn’t fit for office.

As sickened as many Americans feel about the corrupt nature of this country’s political culture, sending Trump to Washington makes no more sense than employing an arsonist to put out a fire.


The Madison Valleywood Project: A media-tech alliance formed to fight ISIS

Kaveh Waddell writes: On January 8, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the directors of the FBI and the NSA, the director of national intelligence, and other officials traveled to San Jose, California, to meet in secret with tech-company executives. The officials asked for the executives’ advice for how to launch counter-messaging campaigns on social media, according to reports. And a few weeks later, Secretary of State John Kerry made his way to Universal Studios, where he met with a dozen Hollywood studio executives to discuss how film and storytelling could be used to counter extremist narratives, reports said.

The culmination of the government’s efforts came just last month, when officials packed a room to capacity for a closed-door meeting at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. There, the three elements of the government’s push came together both in person and in name: The agenda that was distributed to participants bore the title “Madison Valleywood Project,” in honor of the three main industries in attendance.

The meeting, which was scheduled to take three hours, was a chance to connect attendees whose worlds don’t usually intersect. After Carlin gave opening remarks, a New York-based branding consultant presented an overview of ISIS media strategies and recruiting tactics. Then, participants broke into eight-person teams and had an hour to storyboard a messaging plan.

The government played host and incubator, but left the creative work to the guests, who also included documentary filmmakers, political consultants, NGO representatives, and even a video-game developer. “We tried to cast a wide net,” said the administration official with knowledge of the meeting. “A lot of effort went into ensuring that each table had a person from each community.” Each table also included someone from the government.

Sitting next to Carlin, Jeffrey connected with another of his tablemates, a D.C.-based political consultant who staffed Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The two began to talk about one of the main hurdles that the anti-extremist project faces: how to fund it.

They’re considering setting up a 501(c)(3) non-profit or a foundation, which would allow American companies to donate toward the cause. It’s important the money come from the private sector and individuals, Jeffrey said. “It can’t look like anything political or part of the U.S. government.”

One reason the government wants to stay out of the equation is to preserve the credibility of whatever the participants produce. For a would-be terrorist, the U.S. government probably isn’t the most trusted source for information. Officials are bringing people together, and giving them advice and information, but they appear to want the final product to be free of the baggage of being connected to the feds. [Continue reading…]

That’s right: ISIS recruits aren’t big fans of Uncle Sam, but they use social media, seem impressed by Hollywood blockbuster-style violence, and are responsive to slick advertising.

The logic of bringing together Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Silicon Valley to fight ISIS, makes sense, kind of — except it really doesn’t.

The masters of form in this arena seem about as clueless as anyone else when it comes to content. There’s a consensus, apparently, that they need to come up with a “positive message.”

ISIS is appealing to people who want to bring about a radical change in the world and participate in the fulfillment of what they regard as a utopian vision. A plausible alternative would need to go some distance in appealing to such grandiose ambitions.

Whatever this as-yet unfunded project ends of producing, seems likely to be as half-baked as its conception.

If they are really intent on countering the propaganda coming from ISIS, then at the outset they surely need to be as focused and serious about their own undertaking as is ISIS’s own propaganda machine.

There’s no point coming up with a brand if you don’t have a product.


The Intercept, busy denouncing critics of Trump, now says media hasn’t done enough to denounce Trump


Glenn Greenwald writes:

As Donald Trump’s campaign predictably moves from toxic rhetoric targeting the most marginalized minorities to threats and use of violence, there is a growing sense that American institutions have been too lax about resisting it. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan on Sunday posted a widely cited Twitter essay voicing this concern, arguing that “Trump’s rise represents a failure in American parties, media, and civic institutions — and they’re continuing to fail right now.” He added, “Someone could capture a major party [nomination] who endorses violence [and] few seem alarmed.”

Actually, many people are alarmed, but it is difficult to know that by observing media coverage, where little journalistic alarm over Trump is expressed.

Really? Everywhere I look there has been no shortage of voices of alarm — everywhere other than, perhaps, The Intercept.

Greenwald and his colleagues have too often seemed more concerned about the hypocrisy of Trump’s critics than about Trump.

On March 4, for instance, Greenwald wrote:

in many cases, probably most, the flamboyant denunciations of Trump by establishment figures make no sense except as self-aggrandizing pretense, because those condemning him have long tolerated if not outright advocated very similar ideas, albeit with less rhetorical candor.

The same day, The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz wrote:

Over 90 “members of the Republican national security community” have now signed an open letter to express their united opposition to a Donald Trump presidency. The letter makes many reasonable criticisms of Trump for his “military adventurism,” “embrace of the expansive use of torture,” and “admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin.”

But some of Trump’s critics have no standing here, given that they’ve publicly supported or even directly participated in the same kinds of things for which they are now criticizing him.

At the end of February, The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani saw “Trump moving the GOP to a more dovish direction” — the context of that dubious prediction being the fact that Trump’s success “is setting off alarm bells among neoconservatives who are worried he will not pursue the same bellicose foreign policy that has dominated Republican thinking for decades.”

One gets the sense that at The Intercept, a resurgence of the neocons strikes louder alarm bells than Trump’s rising power.

But today Greenwald writes:

Imagine calling yourself a journalist, and then — as you watch an authoritarian politician get closer to power by threatening and unleashing violence and stoking the ugliest impulses — denouncing not that politician, but, rather, other journalists who warn of the dangers.

Except that seems to be pretty much what Greenwald himself and his colleagues have been doing.

Sounding the alarm about Trump has been the mainstay of the mainstream media for months — even though that alarm has often been diluted by the false expectation that Trump would cause his own campaign to implode.

The problem for those whose own overriding preoccupation is criticism of the establishment/government/media has been a reluctance to echo a mainstream critique of Trump and thereby risk appearing to be in alignment with the forces one rigidly opposes.

Those who pound too hard on the anti-establishment drum are opening up a real danger in November.

If, as seems likely, it comes down to a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, a significant number of Bernie Sanders’ current supporters may decide not to vote for the establishment candidate, Clinton, and some may even opt for Trump, not because they agree with him but because they see intrinsic value in shaking up the system.

If, for the sake of his readers, Glenn Greenwald wants to unequivocally register the degree to which he is indeed alarmed by Trump, maybe he can say right away that in a Clinton vs. Trump general election, in spite of the mountain of misgivings he has about Clinton, he will nevertheless vote for her. But maybe he won’t.

(And just in case anyone is wondering: In my state’s primary, I just voted for Bernie Sanders. If the general election turns out to be Clinton vs. Trump, I’ll vote for Clinton.)


Trump takes cue from Assad by casting critics as terrorists

A couple of days ago, a Syrian-American tweeted:

Even though Trump didn’t make the call, he clearly has no shame in following Assad’s example by accusing a protester of having ties to ISIS after rushing the stage at a Dayton rally.

Needless to say, Trump’s accusation is baseless, as reports:

Tommy Dimassimo, a student at Wright State University in Dayton, has been an avid supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on social media.

The video [which Trump tweeted] seems to have been created by a troll, the same person who started a Facebook page called “Tommy dimassimo wasn’t hugged enough as a kid.”

The Arabic caption on the original video appears to be a joke, including a phrase that roughly translates to saying Dimassimo thought he’d be a big man by standing on the American flag, but really has a small penis.

When George Bush launched the war on terrorism, his rhetoric was a bountiful gift to tyrants around the world. In its response to 9/11, the U.S. had effectively issued a free license for global political oppression which could henceforth all be conducted in the name of fighting terrorism.

Donald Trump has brought that gift back home and anyone who wonders how he would operate as president, merely needs to see how he now demonizes his adversaries.

Yet among some reactionary anti-imperialists, there is a notion that, bad as Trump might be, Hillary Clinton would be worse. Clinton is supposedly the ultimate war-maker whereas Trump strangely gets cast as some sort of man of peace.

For instance, at Counterpunch, William Blum says of Trump:

He speaks of Russia and Vladimir Putin as positive forces and allies, and would be much less likely to go to war against Moscow than Clinton would.

On the Syrian dictator, Trump said last September: “Assad, to me, looks better than the other side,” and in January he claimed that Clinton and Obama “created ISIS.”

Those who want to see Trump as an anti-interventionist should note that in the same speech in Biloxi, Mississippi, he proudly asserted in front of a crowd of thousands of supporters, “I am the most militaristic person in this room.”

On the nuclear deal that Obama struck with Iran, Trump warns: “I will police that [deal], to a level that they [Iran] will not believe even exists.”

Anyone who thinks that a president Trump who has vowed to expand America’s military strength would turn out to be a stabilizing influence in the world, seems to be indulging in wishful thinking.

But let’s suppose that Trump did indeed turn out not to start any wars overseas, there isn’t a shred of evidence that he has the capacity to be the “great unifier” at home that he claims to be.

Trump builds unity in the same way that every tyrant employs: by fomenting hatred of the enemy.

The enemy is a revolving target. It alternates between immigrants, Muslims, the media, China, and now, disruptive protesters.

The result of this approach is always the same: division.

Although he keeps on winning primary after primary, Trump is viewed across America more unfavorably than any other major candidate — and yet he’s likely to become the Republican nominee.

He may even become president. As he correctly says, Clinton’s supporters lack “fervor,” while Bernie Sanders faces a struggle in the Democrat delegate count.

The risk is that out of cynicism about the political process, or out of a sense perhaps that America might be getting what it deserves, Trump’s half-hearted critics may hand him power — power gained not because of the breadth of his support but because too many people underestimated the threat he poses to this country.


Donald Trump’s strongman strategy


To the mild frustration of reporters and commentators, Donald Trump has thus far run a presidential campaign that is virtually content-free when it comes to policy substance.

The main thing he promises to deliver if he becomes president is Donald Trump. He isn’t asking voters to support what he stands for; he wants Americans to support him.

And as for why anyone should support him, his reason is plain: I’m the man. I’m stronger than anyone who tries to challenge me. I can make America great because I am great.

Each time Trump casually generates outrage, he demonstrates his growing power. He parades his ability to act without constraint and baits the media which promptly and obediently declares, “this time Trump’s gone too far.”

Yet as both he and they know, on the contrary, he’s just shown that none of his rivals or critics have the power to rein him in. Like a boxing champion, he continues waiving his fist in the air to the delight of his admirers.

When Trump refused to disavow the Ku Klux Klan this weekend, did this have anything to do with his views about the KKK? I very much doubt it. Instead, it much more likely revealed what he thinks of Jake Tapper and CNN. Trump wasn’t about to jump through a disavowal hoop on the command of a journalist.

Trump has made it abundantly clear how he views the media, not only through his countless verbal expressions of contempt, but also through demeaning the press at campaign rallies by forcing them into pens, like farmyard animals — a humiliation that news organizations accept because of their own greed.

Since Trump is running as a strongman for America, all he has to do is pick fights and win them. It doesn’t matter what the fight is about — just that he’s the one who comes out on top.

When the pope seemed to be picking a fight with him, Trump backed down — that was a fight that offered no reward.

When Trump runs as the Republican candidate in the general election, he won’t need to be the most popular candidate in order to win — he’ll just need to get the most votes. In other words, it probably won’t matter who he is running against if he is successful in generating a higher turnout from his supporters than that of his opponent.

In this regard, Trump’s trump card is the fact that he mostly appeals to Americans who are loyal to strong leaders and obedient to their commands.

Last month, Max Ehrenfreund wrote:

One of the reasons that Donald Trump has flummoxed pollsters and political analysts is that his supporters seem to have nothing in common. He appeals to evangelical and secular voters, conservative and moderate Republicans, independents and even some Democrats. Many of his supporters are white and don’t have a college degree, but he also does well with some highly educated voters, too.

What’s bringing all these different people together, new research shows, is a shared type of personality — a personality that in many ways has nothing to do with politics. Indeed, it turns out that your views on raising children better predict whether you support Trump than just about anything else about you.

Matthew MacWilliams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted a poll in which Republicans were asked four questions about child-rearing. With each question, respondents were asked which of two traits were more important in children:

  • independence or respect for their elders;
  • curiosity or good manners;
  • self-reliance or obedience;
  • being considerate or being well-behaved.

Psychologists use these questions to identify people who are disposed to favor hierarchy, loyalty and strong leadership — those who picked the second trait in each set — what experts call “authoritarianism.” That many of Trump’s supporters share this trait helps explain the success of his unconventional candidacy and suggests that his rivals will have a hard time winning over his adherents.

When it comes to politics, authoritarians tend to prefer clarity and unity to ambiguity and difference. They’re amenable to restricting the rights of foreigners, members of a political party in the minority and anyone whose culture or lifestyle deviates from their own community’s.

“For authoritarians, things are black and white,” MacWilliams said. “Authoritarians obey.”

When Donald Trump calls out his troops on November 8, they will obey.


In Libya, Obama chose to lead from behind; in Syria it’s now feed from behind

The New York Times reports: Most of the Russian and American aircraft traversing Syria have been warplanes firing missiles and dropping bombs. But under an international agreement to aid Syrians trapped in the fighting, Russian planes will soon be dropping food in an operation partly financed by the United States.

The United Nations World Food Program will start its first airdrops in Syria in coming days, relief officials said Thursday. The main focus is Deir al-Zour, an eastern Syrian city where more than 200,000 inhabitants are ringed by forces of the Islamic State, which has made land access impossible.

Under the emergency aid agreement, truck convoys began supplying food and medicine to five besieged towns in other parts of Syria on Wednesday. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for the Syrian conflict who helped to negotiate the final arrangements, had hinted that airdrops were an option for areas that are unreachable by land.

The World Food Program will use aircraft provided by a Russian contractor for the drops, which are conducted by parachute from high altitudes, said Bettina Luescher, a spokeswoman for the agency. [Continue reading…]

If the U.S. administration wanted to salvage a few crumbs of credibility among the Syrians who it has otherwise deserted, it could have seized this opportunity in public diplomacy — just as the Russians have.

It’s all very well to say that getting aid to those in need is more important than taking credit, but somehow, I doubt very much that U.S. decision-making at this juncture has been guided by humility. Moreover, Russia’s interest in taking the lead is surely guided by its own desire to do exactly what the Assad regime has in its long-running manipulation of UN aid distribution: support it’s military strategy by steering aid towards its own supporters.

Obama might persist in his passive approach to Syria because he sees himself as the choreographer of America’s departure from the Middle East, but walking away is much easier said than done.

Syria has become a global crisis precisely because so many governments and populations outside the conflict thought it could be ignored or viewed calmly from a comfortable distance.

Meanwhile, many of those who in the past argued most vehemently against Western intervention have since become cheerleaders of Russia’s intervention — erstwhile anti-militarists who turn out to be secret admirers of Vladamir Putin’s muscularity.


How to lose sight of war crime immorality


After the U.S. dropped bombs on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Afghan city of Kunduz on October 3, Glenn Greenwald wrote:

Doctors who travel to dangerous war zones to treat injured human beings are regarded as noble and trustworthy. They’re difficult to marginalize and demonize. They give compelling, articulate interviews in English to U.S. media outlets. They are heard, and listened to.

MSF has used this platform, unapologetically and aggressively. Its staff are clearly infuriated by the attack on their hospital and the deaths of their colleagues and patients. From the start, they have signaled an unwillingness to be shunted away with the usual “collateral damage” banalities and, more important, have refused to let the U.S. military and its allies get away with spouting obvious falsehoods.

Greenwald shared MSF’s disgust in response to statements which amounted to justifications for war crimes.

Following the latest airstrikes on MSF hospitals in Syria, Greenwald’s reaction has so far been much more muted. It has yet to go beyond a couple of tweets which rather than being directed at the likely culprit of these war crimes, Russia, focus instead on the hypocrisy of the U.S. government.

Indeed, the U.S. can’t credibly denounce Russia for bombing MSF hospitals in Syria when it has done the same in Afghanistan.

By the same token, however, how can Greenwald credibly denounce American war crimes if he’s going to refrain from denouncing Russia’s?

He can’t be accused of being a hypocritical U.S. official. He doesn’t represent the American government.

Maybe at the moment he’s suspending judgment about who was responsible for the latest airstrikes in Syria — even though MSF says the attack was “deliberate” and says “either the [Syrian] government or Russia” was “clearly” responsible:

That’s a pointless question in this case since as far as Russia is concerned, there is nothing to investigate.

As TASS reports:

Asked for a comment regarding reports a hospital in Syria’s Idlib province had been bombed, as well as claims the Russian air group was responsible, [Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry] Peskov invited everybody to rely “on the root source first and foremost.” “In this particular case the representatives of Syrian authorities are the root source,” he said.

Peskov recalled that Syria’s ambassador to Russia, Riyadh Haddad, said on Tuesday the hospital in Idlib province was destroyed by the Americans, and not the Russian air group.

If Greenwald actually believed Haddad’s claim, I would expect him to be now denouncing U.S. airstrikes on MSF hospitals in Syria, but he isn’t — most likely because he realizes the Syrian ambassador was spouting obvious falsehoods.

Instead, Greenwald’s primary interest is in using these war crimes as an opportunity to take shots at the U.S. government — even though as Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and others have documented, attacks on medical facilities are neither accidental nor incidental to the conflict: they are an integral feature of the war strategy used by Assad and his allies.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine in December, doctors with PHR said:

Since the conflict began in 2011, PHR has documented the killings of 679 medical personnel, 95% of them perpetrated by government forces. Some personnel were killed in bombings of their hospitals or clinics; some were shot dead; at least 157 were executed or tortured to death.

The issue here is that anyone who wants to resolutely challenge American double standards needs, for the sake of credibility, to avoid having their own double standards on war crimes.

As for the notion that Greenwald, as an American, has a duty to challenge his own government rather than Russia’s, he might pause to consider that his tweets and articles probably attract more attention in the Kremlin than they do in the White House.


Aleppo airlift: Maybe the U.S. has not run out of options in Syria


After I posed the question, can the U.S. take action to protect Aleppo? a reader reasonably asked: What would a productive engagement look like? Indeed.

For several years, the off-the-shelf answer to this question has included imposing a no-fly zone. The frequency with which this option has been proposed — and then ignored or dismissed — has undermined its credibility. Even so, it’s worth remembering that the northern no-fly zone enforced following the First Gulf War in 1991 provided the basis for the development of enduring Kurdish self-rule in what has since become the most stable part of Iraq. American actions in the Middle East are not always destined to make things fall apart.

The U.S. and its allies could have imposed a no-fly zone in Syria. But President Obama delayed long enough for that option to get knocked off the table by Vladimir Putin.

The latest high-profile proponents of a no-fly zone, Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier, seem to be engaged in an exercise in wishful thinking.

I don’t doubt that their outrage over American inaction is heartfelt. Even so, they gloss over the fact that since Russia now controls Syrian airspace, there isn’t the faintest chance the Obama administration would be willing to try and impose a no-fly zone because — as officials keep on saying — the U.S. isn’t going to risk starting World War Three.

Does that mean, therefore, that U.S. Syria policy now rests in the hands of John Kerry and his efforts to breath life into a political track — an approach that has little more vitality than the Middle East peace process? If that’s true, then the conventional wisdom is probably right: nothing can be done.

Dualistic thinking is always convenient. Debate gets simplified if we only have to weigh up two options. Other options are easy to marginalize, not necessarily because they are unworthy of consideration but because the debate risks becoming open-ended if too much gets brought to the table. Thus the current debate has largely been reduced to military action versus diplomacy and with the former ruled out, Kerry ends up as the embodiment of U.S. Syria policy. Unfortunately for him, diplomatic successes are much harder to accrue than frequent flier miles — especially when the U.S. has no bargaining power.

The Russians now say that they intend to carry on bombing Syria through the rest of this month while proposing a truce in March. Translated into plain English, that means they will continue bombing until their current military objectives have been accomplished.

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin says that their airstrikes are being conducted in a “transparent manner” and says Russia’s critics are politically exploiting humanitarian issues.

“They rather crudely use humanitarian matters in order to play, we believe, a destructive role as far as the political process is concerned,” he says.

So this is Russia’s position: It claims it’s military actions are constructive while it accuses the proponents of diplomacy of undermining the political process.

No one should be in any doubt: for Assad and his powerful allies, Geneva is now just a sideshow — a useful distraction and an occasional stage for diplomatic games.

With no military options and no effective diplomacy, it’s easy to see why so many have concluded that nothing can be done.

But there’s never nothing…

In 1948, having as many as one million soldiers based in Germany, the Soviet Union tightened a blockade around Berlin. At that time, the U.S. had 31,000 combat troops in West Germany. It seemed very reasonable to conclude that there was nothing the West could do to prevent the whole of Berlin coming under the control of the Soviets. The only way of preventing that outcome was to break the blockade and launch an airlift, unprecedented in scale.

The airlift began on June 24 and was anticipated to run for three weeks. The Communist press in East Berlin mocked the project, describing it as “the futile attempts of the Americans to save face and to maintain their untenable position in Berlin.”

Over the following weeks and months, the U.S., Britain, and France, succeeding in delivering up to 6,000 tons of supplies every day, as a result of which on May 12, 1949, the Soviets lifted the blockade. The operation continued through the end of September in order to amass a sufficient stockpile of supplies in the event that the airlift needed to be restarted.

In the course of the airlift’s operation, 2,326,406 tons of supplies were carried on 278,228 flights. And this was at a time that Europe was still weighed down by the economically crippling effects of World War Two.

The cost of the Berlin airlift was equivalent to less than the United States gives to Israel each year in military aid.

In August 2014, President Obama was persuaded to intervene in Iraq to provide humanitarian assistance to 40,000 Yazidis, trapped in the Sinjar Mountains, under threat from ISIS. The operation continued for a few days and the Yazidis were led to safety by Kurdish fighters from the PKK and YPG. This wasn’t reminiscent of 1948, but it was an emergency response.

At times of crisis the U.S. has often shown its willingness and capacity to make constructive interventions. (Acknowledging that fact doesn’t require we ignore America’s destructive impact on the world.)

What the U.S. did in Berlin and the Sinjar Mountains does not offer a template for humanitarian operations in Syria, although it might suggest new ways to consider the application of military resources to serve humanitarian goals.

Obama might be unwilling to risk direct conflict between American and Russian fighter jets patrolling the same skies, but when the U.S. started sending cargo planes into Berlin, in was on the assumption that the Soviets would not risk a war by attacking non-combatant aircraft. The same principle could apply to Syria. Whatever Churkin claims, delivering food, clothing, and medicine to those in need is a legitimate humanitarian endeavor.

UN Resolution 2165 was passed with Russia’s support to “ensure that humanitarian assistance, including medical and surgical supplies, reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes,” but the UN’s ability to make good on that promise is currently being obstructed by both Russia and the Assad regime.

Moreover, the UN has increasingly come under fire from Syrians who see humanitarian aid being used to support the Assad regime. “For many of us in Syria, the UN has turned from a symbol of hope into a symbol of complicity,” besieged Syrians wrote in a letter to Stephen O’Brien, the UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs.

There are cities across Syria under siege with populations facing starvation. If the U.S. was to start humanitarian airlift operations whose scope might initially be quite limited, it would send several important messages:

  • Assad’s policy of siege warfare will not continue unchallenged
  • The West has not turned its back on those Syrians now facing starvation
  • Russia is not being given a free hand in shaping Syria’s future

This isn’t a political solution for the war in Syria and the logistical challenges would be huge, but facing emergencies has more to do with the willingness to act than it has with being able to construct the perfect plan.

Discovering what is possible often requires ignoring the many ways in which one risks failing. If the Berlin airlift had been proposed on the assumption that it would need to continue for 15 months, it would most likely have been dismissed as impossible and never undertaken.


Can the U.S. take action to protect Aleppo?


Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier write: Aleppo is an emergency, requiring emergency measures. Are we no longer capable of emergency action? It is also an opportunity, perhaps the last one, to save Syria. Aleppo is the new Sarajevo, the new Srebrenica, and its fate should be to the Syrian conflict what the fate of Sarajevo and Srebrenica were to the Bosnian conflict: the occasion for the United States to bestir itself, and for the West to say with one voice, “Enough.” It was after Srebrenica and Sarajevo — and after the air campaign with which the West finally responded to the atrocities — that the United States undertook the statecraft that led to the Dayton accords and ended the war in Bosnia.

The conventional wisdom is that nothing can be done in Syria, but the conventional wisdom is wrong. There is a path toward ending the horror in Aleppo — a perfectly realistic path that would honor our highest ideals, a way to recover our moral standing as well as our strategic position. Operating under a NATO umbrella, the United States could use its naval and air assets in the region to establish a no-fly zone from Aleppo to the Turkish border and make clear that it would prevent the continued bombardment of civilians and refugees by any party, including the Russians. [Continue reading…]

Any military strategy that’s designed “to recover our moral standing” is dubious — and not simply because there are those who doubt that the U.S. possessed much the moral standing in the first place.

The effectiveness of a military strategy can’t be assessed on the basis of the worthiness of its non-military goals.

The authors in their sweeping assertion that they are offering “a perfectly realistic path,” dodge the awkward details on how this would work.

Are they assuming that once the boundaries of this no-fly zone had been defined, Russian and Syrian aircraft would then obediently comply?

Or do they assume that as soon as a few jets had been shot down the intended lesson would have swiftly been learned?

Turkey already shot down a Russian jet on the edge of this arena. What lessons, if any, have been drawn from that incident and are they now being applied to this future scenario?

“If the Russians and Syrians sought to prevent humanitarian protection and resupply of the city, they would face the military consequences,” we are told by the armchair generals.

“Military consequences” is a phrase of political bluster — especially when coming from two writers who profess no military expertise. If pressed to spell out what these military consequences might be, I expect Ignatieff and Wieseltier would defer to the actual generals.

My point here is not to dismiss the idea that at this late hour there might be a constructive military intervention in Syria, but simply to say that such an argument needs more detail and substance and fewer passionate declarations. It needs to credibly show how this would work rather than simply why it should be undertaken.

Currently, Obama administration officials are cynically curtailing all discussion about their military options by claiming that they only have two choices: start World War III or do essentially nothing (beyond repeating their mantra that their is no military solution in Syria).

“What do you want me to do, go to war with Russia?” John Kerry is reported to have asked a Syrian NGO representative in London last week.

The choice is false but it is gladly being picked up by ideological anti-interventionists who are attracted by the rhetorical utility of this device when offered to those who have little interest in questioning its validity.

To those who insist on framing this crisis in terms of World War III, I would ask two questions: What makes you think it hasn’t already begun? And why do you think its defining attribute necessarily involves a clash between the U.S. and Russia?

A world war involves global instability and a contagion of violent conflict. There are active conflicts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and Libya. There is unrest in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Palestine, Israel, and elsewhere.

As the EU struggles to handle the refugee crisis, European unity is being fractured, placing its future in jeopardy.

If through the power of inattention, Americans could indeed successfully insulate themselves from the effects of global strife, then perhaps this could endure as a land of blissful ignorance.

Instead, what is more predictable is that the more disengaged the U.S. becomes, the less influence it will have and the fewer options it can consider.

No one will benefit from America’s self-imposed paralysis.


Putin, Assad, and the nexus of torture and terror


Last October, Patrick Cockburn welcomed the arrival of Russian forces in Syria, suggesting that the “intervention of Russia could be positive in de-escalating the war”. He wrote:

Overall, it is better to have Russia fully involved in Syria than on the sidelines so it has the opportunity to help regain control over a situation that long ago spun out of control. It can keep Assad in power in Damascus, but the power to do so means that it can also modify his behaviour and force movement towards reducing violence, local ceasefires and sharing power regionally.

Posturing as a neutral observer, Cockburn no doubt preferred the language of “de-escalation” rather than military solutions, yet having noted that “Russia is at least a heavy hitter, capable of shaping events by its own actions,” he could hardly have been surprised by the massive onslaught on Aleppo over the last few days.

After Obama’s hollow demands for Assad’s departure, Washington has now moved towards what almost amounts to a quiet alliance with the regime by shutting down what was left of a meager weapons supply to rebel groups.

As Emile Hokayem writes:

Just as Russia escalates politically and militarily, the Obama administration is cynically de-escalating, and asking its allies to do so as well. This is weakening rebel groups that rely on supply networks that the U.S. oversees: In the south, the United States has demanded a decrease in weapons deliveries to the Southern Front, while in the north, the Turkey-based operations room is reportedly dormant.

The result is a widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles. This could have the ironic effect of fragmenting the rebellion — after years of Western governments bemoaning the divisions between these very same groups.

Assad is far from being able to declare he has won the war, but he is close to winning the argument about how it gets framed.

He always claimed that he was fighting terrorism — deploying the rhetorical gift which neoconservatism freely bestowed on authoritarian rulers around the globe after 9/11 — and before long, it looks like this is how the war in Syria will neatly be defined: the regime vs ISIS and al Qaeda. And that’s a fight Assad has no interest in winning.

Nevertheless, it’s worth being reminded why the continuation of Assad’s rule should not be mistaken as a harbinger of peace. If a year or two from now, violence no longer rains down from the sky in the form of barrel bombs and Russian airstrikes, it will most likely continue without restraint in the domain where this regime has always exercised its ruthless power: by imprisoning, torturing, and murdering its opponents.

In “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic,” a newly released report for the UN Human Rights Council, we learn:

Interrogators and guards employed gruesome methods of torture to kill detainees. In 2014, a detainee held in a centre under the control of the 4th Division of the Syrian army had his genitals mutilated during torture. Bleeding severely and left without treatment, he died three days later. A detainee of a Military Security branch in Homs witnessed an elderly man being severely beaten, and then hung by his wrists from the ceiling. The guards burned his eyes with a cigarette, and pierced his body with a heated, sharp metal object. After hanging in the same position for three hours, the man died.

Other detainees died as a result of injuries and wounds sustained during torture. Victims received little or no medical care to treat the wounds and developed severe infections that eventually led to their demise. In the Air Force Intelligence Branch in Aleppo, a detainee suffered severely from an infected wound in his leg sustained during torture. Unable to stand up, he was eventually placed in the corridor outside the cell, receiving no medical care. After a few days, fellow detainees observed that he was dead. His family was later able to obtain the body through unofficial channels. Due to marks of torture and the severe emaciation of his corpse, his family could first only recognise him by an identifying tag. A 15-year-old boy detained in 2013 by the 4th Division in a detention facility near Yafour (Rif Damascus) reported seeing several male detainees dying due to torture and inhuman prison conditions and denial of medical assistance.

A large number of deaths were caused by the squalid conditions in which detainees were kept. Prison conditions were similar across detention facilities. They included severely overcrowded cells where prisoners were often forced to stand and sleep in shifts, stripped to their underwear. Lack of clean drinking water, sanitation, lice infestations and other unhygienic conditions caused the spread of disease and infections. Many prisoners were forced to use their toilet as a source of drinking water.

Anyone who believes this is “the lesser of two evils” or the kind of toughness required for “stability,” is delusional.

On the contrary, this type of institutionalized violence has long had an instrumental role in fostering terrorism.


Invasion of the body snatchers

Jacob Weisberg writes: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an average of every 4.3 minutes — according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? [Continue reading…]

As one of those eccentric, socially marginalized but not quite old aged people without a smartphone, it means I now live in a world where it seems the mass of humanity has become myopic.

A driver remains stationary in front of a green light.

A couple sit next to each other in an airport, wrapped in silence with attention directed elsewhere down their mutually exclusive wormholes.

A jogger in the woods, hears no birdsong because his ears are stuffed with plastic buds delivering private tunes.

Amidst all this divided attention, one thing seems abundantly clearly: devices tap into and amplify the desire to be some place else.

To be confined to the present place and the present time is to be trapped in a prison cell from which the smartphone offers escape — though of course it doesn’t.

What it does is produce an itch in time; a restless sense that we don’t have enough — that an elusive missing something might soon appear on that mesmerizing little touchscreen.

The effect of this refusal to be where we are is to impoverish life as our effort to make it larger ends up doing the reverse.


How popular are Britain First and its Islamophobic ‘Christian patrols’?


The Washington Post reports: It’s a video that depicts just the sort of civilizational clash that extremists everywhere crave: Christians walking down a central shopping street in Britain. Muslim storekeepers and passerby hurling verbal abuse. A push. More abuse from both sides. And finally, police intervening to keep the warring clans apart.

The video, a slick propaganda job by the virulently anti-Muslim group Britain First, became a viral hit when the organization posted it to its Facebook page, racking up millions of views.

But there was more to the story than what the video showed.

The video was filmed on Jan. 23 in the multicultural British town of Luton, 30 miles north of London. The town, a former industrial powerhouse that is today known for its budget-flight-focused airport, has become a magnet for both Islamist and Islamophobic extremists. It’s often the canvas upon which hate groups unfurl their provocative displays.

And so it was when Britain First came to town for the fourth time in two years for what it termed a “Christian Patrol.”

The group — a far-right rival of the homegrown English Defense League — specializes in anti-Muslim street theater, while dressing itself in the garb of a devoutly Christian organization. Members wear dark green paramilitary-style uniforms, and march with oversized crosses through Muslim-majority areas, or even through mosques. [Continue reading…]

The garb of a devoutly Christian organization whose members wear dark green paramilitary-style uniforms?

Would the Washington Post refer to the Ku Klux Klan as bearing the symbols of a devoutly Christian organization because — like Britain First — its members like to march carrying large crosses?

There’s no question that these knuckleheads and self-described defenders of British culture have as little right to speak in the name of Christianity as Anjem Choudary has to present himself as the voice of Islam. But easy as Paul Golding and his rowdy followers might be to dismiss, do they actually stand at the vanguard of a much wider but less visible movement stretching across Britain?

The Washington Post picked up this story because Britain First’s recent Luton video went viral, but how much political significance derives from social media popularity?

Britain’s Labour Party, now under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn who enjoys more grass root support than he does in parliament, has a Facebook page with 422,000 likes.

Britain First’s Facebook page has 1,289,000 likes!

But what do all these “likes” actually mean?

Paul Golding probably thinks they mean a lot and this might explain why he felt confident enough to run in the upcoming election to become Mayor of London. Moreover, he probably thinks it’s imperative that he, or someone like him, be able to govern the British capital city given that his leading opponent, Sadiq Khan, is a Muslim.

The election will take place on May 5, and the most recent YouGov poll gives Khan a clear lead (45%) over his closest rival, Zac Goldsmith (35%).

Further down the field comes George Galloway (Respect Party), who is just one point ahead of British National Party candidate, David Furness, who is himself, one point ahead of Golding.

That is to say, 1% of London voters say they support the BNP while 0% support Britain First.

Maybe the antics of Golding and his motley crew deserve less attention than does the promise of what would surely be a victory for multiculturalism: the increasingly likely election of London’s first Muslim mayor.