Re Kamala vs. Tulsi, Problems Abound

Tulsi Gabbard tore into Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor and attorney general of California during the second Democratic debate. Harris countered by pointing to Gabbard’s low polling numbers and questionable appraisals of world leaders like Bashar al-Assad. They’re both kind of right. (Photo Credit: AFGE/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The second round of Democratic Party presidential debates is behind us, and I think it is safe to say that many of our questions about the field have been answered and a clearer picture of the frontrunner’s identity is emerging.

Kidding! Nothing is certain, everything is chaos, and dark psychic forces threaten to take down the world as we know it. My joking allusion to Marianne Williamson aside (she’s a trip, ain’t she?), things are very much up in the air regarding the path to the Democratic nomination in 2020.

The first night seemed to be a productive one for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, widely acknowledged to be the progressive leaders of the field. On this note, I’m really wondering what the point of CNN trying to showcase the likes of John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, and Tim Ryan was. Were they trying to certify them as mere pretenders? Or was this an attempt to “balance” out the leftists and/or rein them in?

If so, it arguably didn’t work, with Warren and Sanders getting in some of the best lines of the night against their centrist objectors languishing in the lower-polling echelons of the 20+ vying for the party’s presidential nod. Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and even the aforementioned spiritual teacher had their moments. Steve Bullock and his centrist brethren seemingly would be well advised to consider exiting the race as Eric Swalwell has done, but don’t let me, you know, rain on their parades.

The second night I admittedly didn’t watch as closely, but evidently, it had its share of memorable moments, if not more so than the half preceding it. Joe Biden once again seemed underprepared for the event, trying to do a delicate dance with his relationship to Barack Obama’s policies amid attacks from other candidates and apparently short-circuiting when attempting to instruct people to text to a certain number to join his campaign. Cory Booker, in an exchange with Biden on his record as mayor of Newark, accused the elder statesman of “dipping into the Kool-Aid when you don’t even know the flavor.” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, another fringe candidate, faced interruptions from protestors over the city’s handling of Eric Garner’s death, shouting “Fire Pantaleo!” in response to the NYPD’s refusal as of yet to meaningfully hold the officer implicated in that incident accountable for his actions.

Perhaps most notable, however, was Kamala Harris’s disappointing performance in the eyes of her supporters after a triumphant first debate. Much in the way Harris exposed Joe Biden in the first debate on elements of his record, especially his stance on busing, Tulsi Gabbard potentially revealed a crack in her opponent’s façade, assailing her record as a prosecutor and later attorney general of the state of California.

Among Gabbard’s criticisms—which she is not alone in raising, it should be underscored—are accusations that Harris defended the use of the death penalty and brushed off evidence of wrongful convictions, ignored claims from sexual abuse survivors, and laughed off putting people in jail for offenses related to marijuana and truancy in schools. For Harris, trying to paint herself as a progressive leader, the attacks from Gabbard, appeared to broadside her. Cue the umpteen headlines about how Tulsi DESTROYED Harris.

Harris, for her part, fired back at Gabbard following the debate, helping set off a conversation that has spilled over into the days and nights afterward. When prompted by Anderson Cooper about the Hawaiian representative’s withering rebukes, Harris remarked that she doesn’t take the opinions of an “Assad apologist” like Tulsi seriously and demeaned her low polling percentage. Her campaign also invoked the specter of Russian meddling in American elections, suggesting Gabbard’s discourse was emblematic of propaganda from the Putin regime. Gabbard has since derided those comments as “cheap smears” designed to deflect from the real issue at hand concerning the state of criminal justice across the nation today.

It’s easy to take sides and get caught up in the win-or-lose, black-or-white dynamism of today’s political climate; Lord knows plenty of Internet and TV commentators have already taken sides in the war of words between these two women. Not simply to avoid confrontation, however, but there is room to appreciate how we can simultaneously agree and disagree with both candidates.

On Harris’s prosecutorial record, when confronted about it by Gabbard on-stage, she mustered, “I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of the state of 40 million people which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work.”

When asked further about it by Cooper post-debate, meanwhile, she dodged, pivoting to Gabbard’s low polling numbers and record on foreign policy. It suggests Harris is not altogether proud of the work she did or doesn’t want to invite the criticism from progressives. Either way, and regardless of Gabbard’s place among the field, she should have been able to defend herself over the course of the debate rather than after the fact and without her congressional colleague present.

As for Gabbard’s foreign policy stances, it’s, well, complicated. Having served as a medical operations specialist and military police officer in Iraq after enlisting in the Hawaii Army National Guard, she is critical of the policy of American interventionism that has characterized our nation’s foreign policy throughout its history, particularly as it intersects with our involvement in the Middle East. To this effect, she condemns the U.S.’s penchant for insinuating itself in other countries’ affairs in service of regime change and installation of leaders willing to acquiesce to American interests. It’s a position that commentators on both sides of the aisle are wont to defend.

Less defensible, however, is her relationship with autocrats of the Eastern Hemisphere as well as the political right. Gabbard has been adamant about the value of being able to meet with authoritarians like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to further a dialog, and at times has been—how shall we say this?—less than forceful in labeling Assad, for one, a brutal dictator and war criminal. In her own post-debate CNN one-on-one, she had to be pressed by Anderson Cooper on admitting as much. Gabbard has also praised Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Indian People’s Party, a Hindu nationalist party (Gabbard is a practicing Hindu), who has seemingly not done enough to curb sectarian bigotry and violence against Muslims in his country. If we are judging her by the company she keeps/seemingly fails to adequately condemn, Gabbard isn’t above reproach.

On this note, among the Democrats in the field, Gabbard has been a favorite among conservatives ever since her criticism of President Barack Obama for refusing to call jihadists “radical Islamic terrorists,” regularly appearing on FOX News programs like Tucker Carlson’s to discuss her views. Her isolationist worldview and opposition to regime change in Syria appeal to anti-war libertarians and far-right leaders. In the past, she has also opposed civil unions and same-sex marriage, though she has since expressed support for the LGBT community, and voted with Republicans in 2015 to make it harder for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to immigrate to the United States. When you’re championed by figures like Richard Spencer and David Duke—yes, that David Duke—it raises one’s eyebrows.

One can’t be sure how personally Harris and Gabbard take these matters. At heart, both are still Democrats and after the election, they’ll need to be committed to fighting the GOP’s agenda, whether they serve in Congress or the White House. It’s their supporters and how their relationship is portrayed in the media, on the other hand, about which I tend to worry. It’s one thing for Kamala and her devotees to downplay Gabbard’s charges about her record because the latter is a relative unknown or a supposed stooge of the Kremlin. What if Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg were to offer the same criticisms, though? And what will happen if Harris ultimately wins the nomination? You can be sure Republicans will come at her with this and worse.

As for Gabbard, progressives, some of whom are Bernie supporters who have favorable opinions about her since she became the first congresswoman to support him in his 2016 bid for the presidency, might cheer the notion of Harris being taken down a peg. Even if Gabbard does hold numerous positions agreeable to progressives and regardless of the fact she was the most Googled candidate after either round of debates, the reluctance at points to come down harder on Assad and other despots is problematic. At best, it’s something of a blind spot. At worst, it’s something more sinister, though this is not to accuse her in such a regard or anything. It’s simply troubling.

You can agree with Tulsi Gabbard’s remarks about Kamala Harris while still demanding accountability for her past votes and interactions with various world leaders. You can support Harris and dismiss Gabbard’s claims about her pre-Senate career, but you can also recognize this is a vulnerability of hers. Preferring a candidate doesn’t mean you need to apologize for her or him, nor does it mean you have to feed the media narrative of a “blood feud” or “catfight” by arguing with the other candidate’s backers on Twitter. At a time when social media helps amplify acrimony in political discourse, there’s room for a lot of ugliness in its elaboration. Two debates in, potential bad omens loom in the distance.


For me, the nature of the ad hominem attacks levied by Kamala Harris at Tulsi Gabbard and echoed by supporters of these candidates and those of other political figures is deeply disconcerting. As you’ll recall, Harris’s campaign, in deflecting from the matter of her checkered record within the purview of the California justice system, invoked Russian interference in our elections as a potential reason for why Gabbard might attack her in this way. Even before this, meanwhile, corporate media were making the connection between Tulsi and Russia.

It should be no wonder, then, that accusations of Gabbard being an operative of the Kremlin or her defenders being Russian bots were flying around wildly after the debates. To be fair, Russian meddling is a real concern for our country. The U.S. intelligence community has made this abundantly clear. That said, suspicion of criticism levied at an establishment-backed candidate like Kamala, feeding itself like the ouroboros eating its own tail, verges on McCarthyite paranoia. What about Bernie? He went to Russia once. Is he a tool of the Kremlin? How do I know you’re not a Russian bot? Your papers, please!

Even when people aren’t claiming that Vladimir Putin and the Russians are loving the debates for the discord and confusion they’ve supposedly helped sow within the American electorate, Democratic supporters and news outlets are keen to advance the theory that all this in-fighting hurts the Democrats and will only lead to re-electing Donald Trump. By now, Republicans are well practiced at making assertions like “Democrats want open borders” and “they’re trying to turn America into a socialist country” in standing by their man.

Both rank-and-file members and party elites seem to forget, though, that primaries are designed to parse out the differences between candidates in search of a single nominee. This is to say that, for a “big-tent” association like the Democratic Party, disagreements are inevitable, and besides, there is yet ample time to come to a single choice. Moreover, on the subject of GOP talking points, even Pete Buttigieg, backed in part by wealthy donors and Wall Street money, recognizes that these attacks from Trump and Co. are liable to frame the Dems as “socialists” no matter who ultimately gets the party nod.

Such is the nature of the beast in modern politics. Heck, even moderate Democrats might levy the same charges against certain members of the field. When alignments with billion-dollar industries and prevailing opinions about the necessity of hewing toward the center to win elections are at stake, leftists may be assailed by anyone to their right, regardless of party affiliation. Talk about your knock-down, drag-out fights.

November 2020 is coming up soon enough. There are still several debates to be had, however, not to mention elections in 2019 that stand to yet more directly impact our lives. Relatedly, it’s one thing if we use these debates to have an honest conversation about the candidates, their policy positions, and the future of the Democratic Party. It’s quite another if we allow ourselves to be swept up by divisive narratives which border on conspiracy theories and use mudslinging and personal attacks to squelch the kind of open discussions we should be having. Under the latter set of circumstances, it may not matter how active Russian agents are in trying to promote chaos. Not when all we need is the slightest push.

“A Tale of Two Countries,” Or, the 2019 State of the Union Address

Donald Trump preached unity in the 2019 State of the Union and shared an agenda based on a vision of America. Unfortunately, it’s a vision for an America which doesn’t exist coming from a man who actively divides his constituents. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

President Donald Trump finally got to deliver his State of the Union address with the recent partial government shutdown in the rear-view mirror (although we could totally have another one in the near future if we don’t figure out how to decouple the subject of a border wall from funding federal agencies, so yay?). The good news is the president stopped short of calling for a state of emergency to advance construction of a border wall. The bad news is Trump had a national platform by which to spew his rhetoric at the American people.

Before we get to the veracity of what Trump said or lack thereof, let’s first address what the man spoke about. Trump’s agenda, at least in principle, was devoted to the areas where members of both parties can find consensus. These major topics included promoting fair trade and other policies which help American jobs/workers, rebuilding our infrastructure, reducing the price of health care (including prescription drugs), creating a more modern and secure immigration system, and advancing foreign policy goals that align with American interests.

On the economy, it was jobs, jobs, jobs! Wages are rising! Unemployment is declining! Regulations are going away! Companies are coming back! And it’s all because of me! So let’s stop all these needless investigations into my affairs. You don’t want THE AMERICAN PEOPLE to suffer on account of me, do you? Trump also addressed tariffs and the USMCA, but rather than calling out countries like China for abuse of workers’ rights or currency manipulation or anything like that, he expressed respect for Xi Jinping and instead laid blame at the feet of past leaders and lawmakers. As always, thanks, Obama.

On immigration, well, you probably know the story by now. Immigrants enrich our society in many ways—except when they don’t, taking away jobs, lowering wages, bringing drugs and violent crime, encouraging the trafficking of human beings, and taxing our public services. ICE is a bunch of heroes, gosh darn it! And we need that wall!

On infrastructure, Trump indicated we need both parties to work together and that he is “eager” to work with Congress on new, cutting-edge investments that the country requires to keep pace in a rapidly developing world. That’s it. Not a lot of what these infrastructural improvements would look like or how we’d go about funding them. But, huzzah, infrastructure!

On lowering drug prices/health care, Congress, wouldja put something together already? Sheesh? Also, HIV and AIDS—why are they still a thing? Let’s cut that out. Cancer? You’re next. Really, we need to recognize that all life is precious. Looking at you, Democrats, and your whole insistence on women’s right to choose. #NotMyAbortions

Lastly, on foreign policy, Trump extolled the virtues of our Armed Forces and thus explained why we need to shower them with money on an annual basis. Also, NATO was being very mean to us but now its members are going to spend more on defense. Also also, Russia is being a doo-doo head and that’s why we pulled out of the INF Treaty. Also also also, Kim Jong-un and I are BFFs and we’re going to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. Also also also also, Guaidó > Maduro and socialism never works. Also 5x, Israel is super cool, the Holocaust was bad, ISIS is defeated, and did I mention we love our troops?

In conclusion, America is awesome and greatness awaits us. So ladies and gents, let’s not screw the pooch on this one and work together. Because if we fail, it will because you all couldn’t figure out how to rise above our differences. #NotMyFault


Depending on your political views, it may not surprise you to know that several of President Trump’s remarks were characterized as either “false” or “misleading” by fact-checkers. Among Trump’s misrepresentations, according to The New York Times:

  • Our economy isn’t growing twice as fast today as when Trump took office, and in fact, American economic growth in 2018 fell short of that of even Greece. Greece!
  • Trump claimed his administration has cut more regulations than any other administration in U.S. history, but according to experts, these rollbacks aren’t at the level of the Carter and Reagan administrations.
  • Job creation during Trump’s tenure isn’t some miraculous, near-impossible feat. It’s roughly on par with the state of affairs during the Obama administration and down from job creation in the 1990s. Also, more people are working in the United States than ever before because more people live here. Unless he wants to take credit for helping populate America too.
  • On immigration, phew, where do we start? El Paso was never one of America’s most dangerous cities. San Diego’s border fencing “did not have a discernible impact” on lower border apprehension rates, according to the Congressional Research Service. In addition, the idea that “large, organized caravans” of migrants are on their way to the U.S. is exaggerated.
  • Not only has the USMCA not been approved by Congress yet, but it might not bring as many manufacturing jobs back to America—or for that matter, the North American continent—as anticipated.
  • On Nicolás Maduro and Venezuela, it’s not so much that Maduro is a socialist as much as he’s a dictator whose rule has been marked by corruption, deficiency in the rule of law, and the circumvention of democracy. But keep parroting conservative talking points.
  • Trump claimed we’d be at war with North Korea if he hadn’t been elected. Bullshit. Especially in the incipient stages of his presidency, Trump notably egged on Kim Jong-un, referring to him as “Little Rocket Man.” Back the trolley up there, Mr. President.
  • On abortion, more misleading remarks. Trump suggested New York’s Reproductive Health Act allows abortions until shortly before birth, but rather, the law permits abortions after 24 weeks in cases where the fetus is not viable or the mother’s health would be imperiled.
  • Trump also invoked Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s comments about discussing abortion with physicians up until birth and end-of-life care in instances where a child wouldn’t live, though Trump treated them as tantamount to advocating for babies’ execution after birth. Sadly, Northam’s ongoing controversy involving whether or not he appeared dressed in blackface or a Ku Klux Klan costume in a college yearbook photo was not part of Trump’s deceptive commentary. That’s on you, Ralph, and I wish you would resign already.

The State of the Union address, especially under Pres. Donald Trump, is a bizarre bit of theater. Here is a function outlined in the Constitution and adapted by means of tradition that makes for much pomp and circumstance amid the formal procedures and recognitions which occur within, presided over by a president who consistently flouts convention and other semblances of decorum. The Trump presidency has been one marked by chaos and one which encourages division within the electorate. The very date of the address was postponed by a shutdown characterized by partisan gridlock—which went curiously unmentioned during Trump’s speech—and was a bone of contention between the president and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. To have members of Congress from both parties smiling and clapping for him seems rather jarring.

It’s particularly jarring to witness this spectacle and the parade of “Lenny Skutniks” that presidents trot out in the name of bolstering their credibility (Trump called upon World War II veterans, a minister who had her non-violent drug offense commuted by Trump, another former inmate who sold drugs and has since reformed, the family of victims of a undocumented immigrant’s violence, an immigrant-turned-ICE special agent, a cancer survivor, the father of someone lost in the attack on the USS Cole, a SWAT officer on the scene at last year’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, and a Holocaust survivor) when the Democrats offered an official rebuttal, as is custom.

Stacey Abrams, who came within two percentage points of winning the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election and might’ve won if not for then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s shenanigans, delivered the Dems’ response. She assailed the Republican Party for crafting an immigration plan that tears families apart and puts children in cages, for working to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, for failing to take action on climate change, for rigging elections and judiciaries, and for repeatedly attacking the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, among other things. Abrams closed her speech with these thoughts:

Even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems—I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.

Our progress has always found refuge in the basic instinct of the American experiment—to do right by our people. And with a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America, together. Because America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies: foreign and domestic. That is who we are—and when we do so, never wavering—the state of our union will always be strong.

Abrams’s sentiments may seem a bit schmaltzy at points, but alongside Trump’s rhetoric since he began his presidential campaign, she is much better equipped to talk about the state of the union and bipartisan solutions than our Commander-in-Chief. And while this message serves an obvious partisan purpose, criticism of Trump’s divisiveness is deserved, notably in light of his numerous falsehoods and distortions.

That’s what makes this all so disorienting. Donald Trump speaks to solving problems which may or may not exist, leaving existing problems unaddressed and creating phantoms where bogeymen are needed. As senator Richard Blumenthal wrote on Twitter, Trump’s State of the Union speech was a “tale of two countries.”

To entertain the absurdities of his presidency with any degree of normalcy, applauding him and dignifying his comments with formality and a primetime audience, is therefore to acknowledge two different speeches: the one that the president gave and the one that Americans actually deserved. It creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that requires some degree of mental gymnastics to try to sort out. Is Trump the uniter and Democrats the dividers? Was it all a farce, his plea for unity and his presidential tone an exercise in cynicism? Or was it just an unofficial rally for his base and potential voters heading into 2020? Does anything he say truly matter? Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? The questions abound, as do the anxiety, probable headaches, and possible additional Queen references.

I’m not sure what the answer is here, if there is only one. I chose not to watch the live broadcast and to read a transcript, view photos, and watch video clips after the fact. I would’ve liked to see more lawmakers do the same, though I suppose Nancy Pelosi did get in some epic eye-rolls. Maybe we should do away with the whole spectacle altogether.

At least as far as Trump is concerned, he’s already made his true feelings known via social media countless times over. Why bother with the charade when we can just read a written report or his tweets instead? If nothing else, it would save time.

2018 in Review: Hey, We’re Still Here!

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women newly elected to Congress are a big reason for excitement leading into 2019 despite disappointments in 2018. (Photo Credit: Mark Dillman/Twitter)

Rejoice! If you’re reading this, it means we haven’t yet managed to get ourselves embroiled in a nuclear war and that the future of our civilization as a going concern—despite our best efforts—is still a possibility!

Whatever your outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come, it’s worth looking back on the moments of the past 12 months and revisiting the themes they evoked.

Without further ado, it’s time for…

2018 IN REVIEW: HEY, WE’RE STILL HERE!

Mueller…always a good call.

When the year started, what did you figure the odds were that Robert Mueller’s investigation would still be going? 50% Less than that? At this writing—with Donald Trump and this administration, you never know what might happen and who might suddenly quit or get fired—the Mueller probe into Trump’s presidential campaign and possible collusion with Russia continues largely unimpeded.

This is not to say that its continued operation and final delivery are guaranteed. Jeff Sessions’s watch as Attorney General has ended, and his dismissal created the objectively strange sensation of a furor over his removal by the left despite his support of the Trump administration’s destructive agenda. His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, inspires little faith there will be any obfuscation of the investigation, especially since he has rejected the advice of an ethics official from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation.

With Mitch McConnell the obstructionist refusing to allow a vote on a bill that would safeguard the investigation, there’s little hope Congress will act to intervene should Trump move to fire Mueller. Which, as he has reminded us umpteen times, he can do because he’s the president. Whatever Mueller’s fate, the results of his team’s findings are yet impressive and suggest the probe should be permitted to run its course. Over 30 people and three Russian companies have been charged in the special counsel’s investigation, producing more than 100 criminal charges, and more yet might be on the way.

Despite Trump’s hollow concerns about the cost—Mueller’s probe is a “waste of money” and yet we should fund a wall that a lot of people don’t want—Robert Mueller and Co. have been remarkably effective and efficient. Trump shouldn’t mess with this investigation if for no other reason than not to risk a major public outcry against him.

“Guns don’t kill people,” but more people killed people with guns

Think we don’t have a problem with gun violence in the United States? That there’s an entire Wikipedia entry for mass shootings in the U.S. in 2018 alone begs to differ.

The February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed and another 17 injured was perhaps the most notable for the activism it helped inspire, but there were other newsworthy shootings around the country. Yountville, California at a veterans home. Nashville, Tennessee at a Waffle House. Santa Fe, Texas at the high school. Scottsdale, Arizona in a series of shootings. Trenton, New Jersey at the Art All Night Festival. Annapolis, Maryland at the Capital Gazette building. Jacksonville, Florida at a Madden NFL 19 tournament. Aberdeen, Maryland at a Rite Aid. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tallahassee, Florida at a yoga studio. Thousands Oaks, California at a bar. Robbins, Illinois at a bar. Chicago, Illinois at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.

Gun rights advocates may point to the varying locales of these shootings and suggest that no matter where you go and how restrictive the gun laws, people can still acquire firearms by illicit means and can do harm. In any number of cases, however, shooters haven’t needed to subvert legal channels. Either way, this shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing more restrictive gun laws. It should be difficult for individuals to acquire guns. There are too many guns. More guns means a higher likelihood that people will get shot. This is not complicated.

If you want to talk about mental health aside from the gun issue, I’m with you. If you want to insist that we just need more good people with guns, I’m not with you, but I still think we should talk about it. In the case of Jemel Roberson in the Robbins, Illinois shooting, he was the good guy with a gun, and got shot because he was black. We haven’t come close to solving the gun violence problem in America, and as long as groups like the National Rifle Association will continue to lobby against gun control and resist statistical research into fatalities related to gun violence, we won’t make progress on this issue. Here’s hoping the NRA continues to suffer a decline in funding.

“Stormy” weather

Stormy Daniels alleges Donald Trump had an extramarital affair with her back in 2006. Trump, who denies everything, denies this happened. Meanwhile, someone paid her $130,000 in advance of the election. Who do you believe? Also, and perhaps more to the point, do you care?

I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Daniels’s account. For some people, though, the mere notion she gets and has gotten money to have sex on camera puts her word in doubt. She’s an opportunistic liar looking to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame. Ditto for her lawyer Michael Avenatti, who naturally has political aspirations.

Even for those who might believe her or who would like nothing more than to nail Trump on some dimension, the nature of her profession is such that they might be loath to discuss the matter of Trump’s infidelity and hush money payments. Talking about sex and adult entertainers is, well, icky for some.

In this respect, our willingness or unwillingness to confront this chapter of Daniels’s and Trump’s lives is a reflection of our own set of values and morals. It’s especially telling, moreover, that so many white evangelicals are willing to forgive Pres. Trump his trespasses. For a group that has, until Trump’s rise, been the most insistent on a person’s character to eschew such concerns demonstrates their willingness to compromise their standards in support of a man who upholds “religious liberty” and who exemplifies the prosperity gospel.

Thus, while some of us may not care about Stormy Daniels personally or may not find campaign finance law riveting, there’s still larger conversations about sex and money in politics worth having. Despite what nonsense Rudy Giuliani might spout.

FOX News continued its worsening trend of defending Trump and white supremacy 

Oh, FOX News. Where do we begin? If we’re talking about everyone’s favorite source for unbiased reporting (sarcasm intended), a good place to start is probably their prime-time personalities who masquerade as legitimate journalists.

Sean Hannity, now firmly entrenched as FOX News’s night-time slot elder statesman with Bill O’Reilly gone, was revealed as a client of Michael Cohen’s (yes, that Michael Cohen) and an owner of various shell companies formed to buy property in low-income areas financed by HUD loans. Surprise! That surprise extended to Hannity’s employer, to whom he did not see fit to disclose a potential conflict of interest when propping up the likes of Cohen and Ben Carson, or his adoring viewers. Not that they care, in all likelihood. Hannity tells it not like it is, but how they want to hear.

As for more recent more additions to the prime-time schedule, Laura Ingraham, when not mocking Parkland, FL survivor David Hogg for not getting into colleges (he since has been accepted to Harvard) or telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” denounced the “massive demographic changes” that have been “foisted on the American people.” She says she wasn’t being racist. She is full of shit.

Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, remained the go-to guy for white supremacist viewpoints, questioning the value of all forms of immigration and more recently deriding immigrants as poor and dirty. He has lost more than a dozen advertisers since those latest comments. Good. The only criticism is that it took them this long to dissociate themselves from Carlson’s program.

FOX News has seemingly abandoned any pretense of separation from the Trump administration in terms of trying to influence the president’s views or tapping into his racist, xenophobic agenda. It hasn’t hurt them any in the ratings—yet. As those “demographic changes” continue, as television viewership is challenged by new media, and as President Trump remains unpopular among Americans as a whole, however, there is no guarantee the network will remain at the top. Enjoy it while you can, Laura, Sean, and Tucker.

Turns out big companies don’t always do the right thing

Facebook, Papa John’s, and Wells Fargo would like you to know they are very truly sorry for anything they may or may have not done. Kind of.

In Facebook’s case, it’s selling the information of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm which did work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was founded by Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon). It also did a piss-poor job of weeding out fake news and hate speech and has since taken to relying on a questionable consortium of fact-checkers, most suspect among them The Weekly Standard.

Papa John’s had to reckon with the idea John Schnatter, the company’s namesake, is, well, kind of a racist dick. They’ve been battling over his ouster and his stake in the company ever since. As for Wells Fargo, it’s still dealing with the bad PR from its massive account fraud scandal created as a function of a toxic sales-oriented corporate culture, as well as the need to propose a reform plan to the Federal Reserve to address its ongoing shady practices (its proposals heretofore have yet to be approved).

In all three cases, these companies have sought to paper over their misdeeds with advertising campaigns that highlight their legacy of service to their customers or the people within their organization who are not bigoted assholes. With Facebook and Wells Fargo in particular, that they continue to abuse the public’s trust conveys the sense they aren’t truly repentant for what they’ve done and haven’t learned anything from the scandals they’ve created.

Unfortunately, cash is king, and until they lose a significant share of the market (or the government refuses to bail them out), they will be unlikely to change in a meaningful positive way. The best we can do as consumers is pressure our elected representatives to act on behalf of their constituents—and consider taking our business elsewhere if these organizations don’t get their shit together.

Civility, shmivility

Poor Sarah Sanders. It seems she can’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or go out for a meal with her family without being harangued.

While I don’t necessarily think people like Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller should be denied the ability to eat (although it’s pretty f**ked up that Miller and Nielsen would go to a Mexican restaurant amid an immigration crisis), calls for “civility” are only as good as the people making such calls and the possibility of substantive action in key policy areas.

People were upset with Michelle Wolf, for instance, for telling the truth about Sanders’s propensity for not telling the truth by making allusions to her as Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and by referencing her smoky eye makeup as the ash from burned facts. Members of the press tripped over themselves to comfort Sanders and to disavow Wolf’s performance. But Wolf was doing her job, and told truth to power. It’s Michelle Wolf who deserves the apology, not habitual liar and Trump enabler Sarah Sanders.

I believe we shouldn’t go around punching Nazis—as satisfying as that might be. That said, we shouldn’t allow people to dispense hate simply to appease “both sides,” and we should be vocal about advocating for the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable populations when people like Miller and Nielsen and Sanders do everything in their power to pivot away from the Trump administration’s destructive actions. After all, it’s hard to be civil when children are being taken from their mothers and people are being tear-gassed or dying in DHS custody.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh. (Photo Credit: Ninian Reed/Flickr)

There’s something about Alexandria

Love her or hate her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived on the national stage following her upset of incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th congressional district.

If you’re a devotee of FOX News, it’s probably the latter. The incoming first-year representative has joined Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi in the vaunted space of people to be booed and hissed at for pretty much everything she does. She took a break before the start of her first term? How dare she! She refused to debate Ben Shapiro? What is she afraid of? As a young Latina socialist, she ticks off all the boxes their audience possesses on their Fear and Hate Index. All without spending an official day on the job.

Like any inexperienced politician, AOC has had her wobbles, chief among them when she flubbed a question on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, she has handled the numerous attacks on her on Twitter and elsewhere with remarkable deftness and grace. More importantly, she appears ready to lead her party on key issues, as evidenced by her outspokenness on the concept of a Green New Deal.

Party leaders may downplay the significance of her upset primary win, but Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence, to many, heralds a progressive shift for Democrats, one in which its younger members and women are not just participants, but at the forefront. At a time when establishment Dems only seem more and more unwilling to change, there is yet reason for genuine excitement in the Democratic Party.

John McCain died. Cue the whitewashing.

I don’t wish death on anyone, but John McCain died at the right time. That time would be the era of President Donald Trump, and by contrast, McCain looks like a saint.

McCain is best remembered for his service to the United States and for helping to kill the Republicans’ intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But we shouldn’t brush aside the less-savory elements of his track record. As a Trump critic, he still voted in line with the president’s agenda most of the time. He was a prototypical war hawk, advocating for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a proponent of armed conflict with Iran—even after all he saw and endured in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, though he is celebrated for defending Barack Obama at a town hall as a good Christian man (though he didn’t specify that he’d be worth defending if he were actually a Muslim), he was an unrepentant user of a racial slur directed at Asians and he signed off on the unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. A lot of the fondness he receives now from journalists likely stems from the access McCain gave reporters while on the campaign trail. Even his vote not to quash the ACA was done with a flair for the dramatic that belied the seriousness of its implications.

John McCain wasn’t the worst person to inhabit the U.S. Senate. But simply being more civil than Donald Trump is a low bar to clear. Regardless, he should be remembered in a more nuanced way in the name of accurate historical representation.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh.

There were a lot of shameful occurrences in American politics in 2018. I already alluded to the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the immigration situation and of ripping apart families. The White House also seems intent on hastening environmental destruction, doing nothing to protect vulnerable subdivisions of the electorate, and pulling out of Syria as an apparent gift to Assad and Vladimir Putin.

And yet, the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court somehow became the most galling example of D.C. partisanship witnessed in sometime. Of course, any discussion of Kavanaugh would be incomplete without the mention of Merrick Garland. On the heels of Republicans’ refusal to hear him as a nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia and after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, things were already primed for tension between the two major parties.

When reports of multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct dating back to Kavanaugh’s high school and college days surfaced, though, the GOP’s stubborn refusal to budge and choose a new candidate was downright appalling. Kavanaugh didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony on the subject of these accusations, lashing out at the people who questioned him, insisting this investigation was a partisan witch hunt, and assuming the role of the aggrieved party like the spoiled frat boy we imagine he was and perhaps still is.

Kavanaugh’s defenders would be wont to point out that the rest of us are just salty that “they” won and “we” lost. Bullshit. Though we may have disagreed with Gorsuch’s nomination and conservatism prior to his being confirmed, he didn’t allegedly sexually assault or harass anybody. Brett Kavanaugh, in light of everything we now know about him, was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans should be ashamed of this chapter in American history, and this might be a good segue into talking about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Just saying.

Death by plastic

In case you were keeping score at home, there’s still an ass-ton of plastic in the world’s oceans. According to experts on the matter, the global economy is losing tens of billions of dollars each year because of plastic waste and we’re on a pace to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?

By all means, we should keep recycling and finding ways to avoid using plastic on an individual basis. Every bit helps. At the same time, we’re not going to make the progress we need until the primary drivers of plastic waste are held accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever—looking at you.

In terms of world governments, China is the worst offender hands down, and numerous Asian countries line the top 10 (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia), but we’re not exactly above reproach. In fact, with Trump at the helm, we’ve been active in helping water down UN resolutions designed to eliminate plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is not an isolated problem, and it’s not going away either. Literally. That stuff lasts a long time. We need to stop plastic production at the source, and push back against companies like Nestlé who exploit downtrodden communities with lax water safeguarding laws. This isn’t a game.

The Dems flipped the House, Brian Kemp stole an election, and other observations about the midterms

It’s true. Though Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, Democrats flipped the House, presumably paving the way for Nancy Pelosi to return to the role of House Majority Leader. Groan at this point if you’d like.

With the Dems running the show in the House, there’s likely to be all sorts of investigations into Donald Trump and his affairs. I mean, more political and financial, not the other kind, but you never know with that guy. That should encourage party supporters despite some tough losses. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz from Senate, despite being way sexier and cooler. Andrew Gillum likewise had a “close but no cigar” moment in the Florida gubernatorial race. Evidently, voters preferred Ron DeSantis, his shameless alignment with Trump, and his thinly-veiled racism. Congratulations, Florida! You never fail to disappoint in close elections!

Perhaps the worst of these close losses was Stacey Abrams, edged out by Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race. If you ask Kemp, he won fair and square. If you ask anyone else with a modicum of discretion, he won because, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he closed polling stations, purged voters from the rolls, failed to process voter applications, and kept voting machines locked up. Kemp’s antics and the shenanigans in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District give democracy a bad name, and beckon real voting reform championed by grassroots activists. After all, if Florida can restore voting rights to felons—Florida!—the lot of us can do better.

George H.W. Bush also picked a good time to die 

Like John McCain, I didn’t wish for “Bush Sr.” to die. Also like John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle extolled his virtues at the expense of a more complete (and accurate) telling of his personal history.

Bush, on one hand, was a beloved patriarch, served his country, and had more class than Donald Trump (again, low bar to clear). He also was fairly adept at throwing out first pitches at baseball games, I guess. On the other hand, he campaigned for president on dog-whistle politics (see also “Willie Horton”), pushed for involvement in the first Gulf War by relying on fabricated intelligence, escalated the war on drugs for political gain, turned a deaf ear to people suffering from AIDS, and was accused by multiple women of trying to cop a feel. So much for being miles apart from Trump.

Was George H.W. Bush a good man? I didn’t know the man, so I can’t say for sure. But he was no saint. Nor was his son or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any other president. He led the country. Let’s not erase his flaws in the name of “togetherness.”


I chose to review these topics because I covered them at length on my blog. This obviously doesn’t cover the sum total of the events that transpired in 2018. Let’s see.

Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA and rolled back Dodd-Frank, extending our use of warrantless surveillance and making it more liable we will slide back into a recession. That sucked. Devin Nunes released a memo that was reckless, misleading, dishonest, and not quite the bombshell it was made out to be. That sucked as well. Our national debt went way up and continues to rise. American workers are making more money because they are working more, not because wages have risen.

What else? Trump got the idea for a self-congratulatory military parade—and then cancelled it because people thought it was a waste of time, effort, and money. DACA is still in limbo. U.S. manufacturing, outside of computers, continues its downward slide. Sacha Baron Cohen had a new show that was hit-or-miss. Oh, and we’re still involved in Yemen, helping a Saudi regime that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

So, yeah, in all, not a whole lot to get excited about in 2018 on the national news front. Moreover, that there seems to be mutual distrust between liberals and conservatives dampens enthusiasm for 2019 a bit. And let’s not even get started on 2020. If you think I’m raring to go for a Biden-Trump match-up (based on current polling), you’d be sorely mistaken.

And yet—step back from the ledge—there is enough reason to not lose hope. Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a record number of women won seats in Congress. Ayanna Pressley became the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the first Democratic Latina governor. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were elected as the first Native American women to Congress. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first Muslim women in Congress. Guam got its first female governor in history in Lou Leon Guerrero. That’s real progress.

Indeed, while Donald Trump as president is intent on standing in the way of progress, and while his continued habitation of the White House is bad on so many fronts, his win has been a wake-up call to ordinary people to get involved in politics, whether by running for office, by canvassing for political candidates and issues, or by making their voices heard by their elected representatives one way or another. Politics can’t be and is no longer just the sphere of rich old white dudes. Despite the efforts of political leaders, lobbyists, and industry leaders with a regressive agenda as well as other obstacles, folks are, as they say, rising up.

There’s a lot of work to do in 2019, the prospect of which is daunting given that many of us are probably already tired from this year and even before that. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, and the immediate rewards can feel few and far between. The goal of a more equal and just society, however, is worth the extra effort. Here’s hoping we make more progress in 2019—and yes, that we’re still here to talk about it same time next year.

The UDHR Is 70. America Needs to Do Better in Following It.

This language from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights echoes that of the Declaration of Independence. And yet, America still struggles with upholding these global principles. (Photo Credit: Jordan Lewin/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

On the U.S. version of The Office, tasked with picking a health care plan for Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Dwight Schrute, assistant to the regional manager, prided himself on slashing benefits “to the bone” in an effort to save the company money. He rationalized his decision-making with the following thought: “In the wild, there is no health care. In the wild, health care is, ‘Ow, I hurt my leg. I can’t run. A lion eats me and I’m dead’.”

Dwight Schrute is, of course, a fictional character, and his attitude is an extreme one. Nevertheless, his mentality reflecting the notion that health care is no guarantee and the idea he needs to select a plan for his Scranton office at all are indicative of a very real issue facing Americans to this day. If health care is a right, why does it feel more like a jungle out here?

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of its signing, Tom Gjelten, NPR’s Religion and Belief correspondent, penned a piece concerning the “boundlessly idealistic” Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR, across its 30 articles, elaborates the central premise that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

To this point, the Declaration speaks against discrimination based on any identifying characteristic. It opposes slavery, torture, and unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the courts. It asserts that all persons have the right to a nationality and to seek asylum from persecution. They also possess the right to marry, the right to their property, freedom of expression/thought and religion, and freedom to peaceably assemble and participate in government. Other stated liberties include the right to work for equal pay, the right to leisure, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to appreciate culture.

What is striking to Gjelten and others is how the UDHR is designed to be applicable across cultures, political systems, and religions. It is truly meant as a universal set of standards, one with secular appeal. That is, it is a human document, not a God-given list of commandments.

Then again, in some contexts, this last point might be a bone of contention. As Gjelten explains, Saudi Arabia abstained from the original unanimous United Nations Assembly vote because of issues with the Declaration’s views on family, marriage, and religious freedom, in particular the idea that one can freely change religions, which can be considered a crime. In general, some of the strongest objections to the language of the UDHR have come from the Islamic world, though this does not imply that Islamic law and these rights are incompatible.

There were others who abstained from the vote in 1948 as well, though. The Soviet Union and its bloc states were part of the eight abstentions, presumably because of the stipulation about people’s right to freely expatriate. South Africa, a country then predicated on racial segregation, was also part of the eight. Even some American conservatives at the time had their qualms about the UDHR’s wording, convinced the sentiments about economic rights sounded too socialist. Actually, that probably hasn’t changed all that much. In certain circles, socialism is indeed a dirty word.

The thrust of Gjelten’s piece is more than just admiration for the Declaration’s principles and the work of Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the UN commission responsible for drafting the document, though, deserved as that admiration is. 70 years after the fact, America’s commitment to upholding its articles is not above reproach. Furthermore, in an era when a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to “globalism” pervades politics here and abroad, the UDHR’s spirit of universality and international fraternity is seriously put to the test.

Gjelten cites two areas in which the country “still falls short” as a subset of the “struggles for civil and political rights that were yet to come” subsequent to the UDHR’s approval vote. One is equal pay for equal work, a topic which deserves its own separate analysis and, as such, I’m not about to litigate it at length here. Suffice it to say, however, that I—alongside many others—believe the gender gap is very real. It also disproportionately affects women of color, occurs across occupations and industries, and is frequently mediated by employer practices that rely on prior salary history as well as policies enforced in individual states designed to specifically disenfranchise female earners. Do with these thoughts as you will.

The other area in which the U.S. has fallen short, as alluded to earlier, is universal health care. Article 25 of the Declaration states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

As a fact sheet on the right to health from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization elaborates, the right to health includes access to health care and hospitals, but it’s more than that. It includes safe drinking water, food, and adequate sanitation. It includes adequate housing and nutrition. It includes gender equality, healthy environmental and working conditions, and health-related education and information.

But yes—it does include the “right to a system of health protection providing equality of opportunity for everyone to enjoy the highest attainable level of health.” It doesn’t say this is a privilege only for those who can afford it.

This is an essential point in the health care “debate.” Should health care be a right for all? While you’re entitled to your opinion, Mr. or Ms. Schrute, if you say no, it’s hard to know how to continue the conversation beyond that. This applies both for naysayers on the left and on the right. Don’t hide behind the idea “we can’t afford it.” Don’t hide behind the Affordable Care Act, which is no guarantee to survive given repeated attempts to sabotage it. If you believe health care is a human right, let’s work backward from there. I mean, all these other countries have some form of single-payer health care. Why shouldn’t we—and don’t tell me it’s because we spend too much on our iPhones


Tom Gjelten’s piece is more concerned with the history behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its formation. Like any good historian, though, he’s got a mind for the Declaration’s larger implications and its potential impact in the years and decades to come. Getting back to that whole growing nationalism thing, Gjelten notes how playing identity politics often draws strength from ethnic or religious conflict.

To be clear, this trend in increasing strife between different groups isn’t just an American phenomenon. Around the world, political leaders have risen to power by aggressively promoting division and/or appealing to a sense of national pride through brutality and curtailing human rights. Rodrigo Duterte. Xi Jinping. Narendra Modi. Viktor Orban. Vladimir Putin. Mohammed bin Salman. The list goes on. There will be more to come, too. Jair Bolsonaro was recently elected president in Brazil. His mindset carries with it a promise for a regressive shift in his country’s politics.

Still, even if we’re not the only ones coping with societal change, if America is truly the greatest country in the world, we should be setting the best example in terms of adherence to the UDHR’s principles. Meanwhile, even before Trump, our country’s commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been uneven.

Criminal sentencing/policing disparities and states’ insistence on use of the death penalty. The lack of a universal health care infrastructure. Failure to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, including women/girls, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community. War crimes overseas and at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Surveillance of global communications. And since Trump has taken office, our performance on these fronts has only gotten worse, notably in categories like foreign policy, the rights of non-citizens, and safeguarding First Amendment rights. If this is “America First” and “making America great again,” there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.

A lot of this may sound a bit too SJW for some. We should all respect one another’s rights. Everyone should be afforded the same opportunities to succeed. Let’s all hold hands and sing songs together around the campfire. I get it. There are practical considerations which complicate implementing solutions to global ills as well. Agencies and nations have to be willing to work together to achieve common goals, and who pays what is always a bother. On the latter note, I tend to think some cases are overstated or represented in a misleading way by politicians and the media. Cue the myriad “Bernie/AOC doesn’t know what he’s/she’s talking about” articles. Let’s all move closer to the center because it has worked so well for us until now.

The thing is that many of the principles covered by the UDHR reflect policy directions voters want and can agree on. When Republicans came to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, they were unsuccessful in part because of the public outcry in support of the ACA. Turns out people like being able to afford health care—who knew? Regarding equal pay for equal work, that shortfall for working women is one that whole families could use if given a fairer salary or wage. Not to mention it’s, you know, the morally right thing to do.

Though we may be susceptible to the words of political figures that would keep us at odds with each other (and secretly may even like it that way), we must continually put the onus on our elected officials to authentically represent all the people within their jurisdiction. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good place to start. As suggested before, let’s consider the change we hope to see before capitulating or saying “no” outright. A more equal America is one which will benefit all its inhabitants—from top to bottom and over the long term. 

The Complicated Legacy of John McCain

top_gun_mccain
As a naval officer, John McCain survived years of unimaginable physical and psychological abuse. That doesn’t absolve him of poor decisions as a lawmaker and presidential candidate, though. (Photo Credit: Diane Bondareff/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Since Senator John McCain passed away after a protracted battle with brain cancer, the tributes have been pouring in from members of the media and political figures on both the left and right. He’s being hailed as a war hero, a maverick, a politician who put country first, and someone who brought dignity to his position as a legislator. He’s also being lauded for changing the way presidential campaigns are run, in that he provided journalists with more access than was the standard at the time.

Hop on Twitter and start digging, however, and you’ll find no shortage of comments from his detractors who, if not downright gleeful about McCain’s death, are devoted to dispelling the myth the media has created about the senator from Arizona. As author Dan Arel tweeted, “He was a monster who killed civilians in Vietnam, voted to kill civilians as a senator, tried to block Martin Luther King Day, sang about bombing Iran…I can keep going. He was a horrible human being and we should be celebrating his death.” But please, Mr. Arel—tell us how you really feel.

In no uncertain terms, therefore, John McCain was a divisive figure in U.S. politics, and since the mainstream media already has the extolling of his supposed virtues covered, let’s get another viewpoint from the vocal minority who has little, if any, praise to spare.

Paul Blest, news editor for Splinter News, wrote a piece shortly after McCain’s passing detailing “the myth of John McCain.” As Blest explains, the media helped McCain craft his image as a “maverick” and “honorable statesman” because, aside from his status as a war hero, he was “always willing to give the media access, the thing it craves above all.”

As such, the press lionized him for doing, as Blest characterizes it, the “bare-ass minimum.” One instance highlighted within is when, during a 2008 town hall, one of McCain’s supporters professed that she was worried Barack Obama might become president because he is “an Arab,” to which McCain replied by taking the microphone, shaking his head, and saying that he’s not an Arab but a “decent family man.”

Members of the media point to this example as emblematic of his extraordinary character, viewing the decade-old clip through rose-colored glasses. Blest and others have pointed out, meanwhile, that a truly meritorious response would’ve been to point out that even if Obama were an Arab, this would not be reason to fear or loathe him, i.e. being an Arab and a decent family man aren’t diametrically opposed.

Another instance of the press celebrating John McCain occurred when he cast his vote against the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In keeping his proverbial cards close to the vest until the last minute, McCain brought a wealth of media attention his way, and prior to entering the Senate chamber, reportedly told reporters to “watch the show.” McCain’s tone here belies the seriousness of the vote about to be cast. Over 20 million Americans were projected to have their health care plans disrupted by a repeal of the ACA. That’s not something to equate with popcorn entertainment.

Thus, while McCain’s willingness to stand apart from his fellow Republican lawmakers when it suited him (see also his opposition to confirming Gina Haspel as CIA director) shouldn’t go unmentioned, as Blest argues, that cases like these were few and far between should give us pause and force us to reconsider his legacy.

One area that really sets John McCain apart—and not in a good way, mind you—is his history as an unrepentant hawk. McCain’s was a leading voice in pushing for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, even past the point when people were considering it a failure and waste of resources, human or otherwise. He also advocated for war with Iran, and celebrated President Donald Trump’s reversal on the Iran nuclear deal. To many, McCain is, simply put, a warmonger, and the decision to name the bill authorizing an exorbitant defense budget for 2019 after him is therefore apropos.

In addition to his beating the drums of armed conflict, and for all his ballyhooed departures from Trump—which the president has treated with his characteristic pettiness in affronts to him beyond the grave—McCain still voted in league with Trump some five-sixths of the time. This included supporting the nomination of Neil Gorsuch and the ability of a Republican-led Congress to block Obama’s pick, as well as voting for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a bill that primarily favored the super-wealthy.

And then there’s John McCain as presidential candidate. His correcting the record on Barack Obama aside, he still agreed to name Sarah Palin, someone clearly not suited to be next in line to run the country (or perhaps any public office of relative import), his running mate in 2008. Arguably, Palin’s rise in prominence gave way to the ascendancy of Donald Trump, for both have been elevated to national political stature owing to rhetoric steeped in factual inadequacy and prejudicial attitudes.

Plus, there’s his whole unapologetic commitment to use of the term “gook,” a racial slur directed at Asians. Even if he meant it primarily for his North Vietnamese captors, it’s still an epithet that Asians and non-Asians alike find offensive. Context notwithstanding, words matter, even (read: especially so) in the era of Trump.

In light of all of the above, and despite tribute after tribute in newspapers and on cable news, Blest suggests McCain’s place in American political history shouldn’t be so highly esteemed. He writes:

McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own. What John McCain’s legacy will be, however, is the one crafted by the reporters and peers who loved him, who bought hook, line, and sinker that McCain was a different kind of politician, and not the fraud he actually was.

This is blunt talk coming from Blest, and in the immediate aftermath of McCain’s death, his words may come across to some as disrespectful, notably given McCain’s bipartisan acclaim. Just the same, though, Blest’s dissent appears more firmly rooted in patriotic concerns than Pres. Trump’s personal grudge, and at any rate, is authentic to how many Americans feel, particularly those of a progressive bent. These feelings, of course, may be magnified given the day’s tense political climate. But it doesn’t make them any less valid.


It’s admittedly difficult to approach John McCain’s memory with anything but reverence if we focus only on how much the man suffered while imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Certainly, if one recalls the late David Foster Wallace’s extensive profile for Rolling Stone of McCain while on the campaign trail circa 2000, his recounting of the physical abuse the man endured as a naval officer tells of a man committed to his principles and exhibiting a resolve few could hope to match. From Wallace’s piece:

In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb.

His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this.

He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.

He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused. The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code.

The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.

But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest.

It’s episodes like this that John McCain’s backers can easily point to as evidence as a man of a certain character. I don’t know about you, but I don’t suspect I would fare particularly well under these circumstances. I mean, I’m the kind of person who freaks out when I can’t log into Pokémon Go because the server is down momentarily. By this token, four-plus years of physical and psychological torture seems like an impossibility.

And yet, it’s precisely because of what McCain saw and survived during wartime that makes his less savory political stances all the more frustrating. For him to witness or even be party to the atrocities of armed conflict and to turn around and to embrace a foreign policy that prizes indiscriminate bombing of foreign lands and wanton regime change is hard to process. It’s incongruous with the image of the younger man holding strong in a strange land against a hostile enemy, and surely flies in the face of the glowing portrait the mainstream press appears keen to paint.

John McCain’s hagiographic appeal in an era in which Donald Trump and current Republican leadership evidently seek to drag the party down to its darkest depths is such that even the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have paid him tribute, much to the chagrin of their supporters.

It’s disappointing and frustrating, especially since it’s hard to know whether these champions of progressive ideals legitimately believe his “legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service,” as Ocasio-Cortez phrased it, or if they feel compelled to do so for fear of reprisal—and for that matter, which of these is worse. Maybe it’s just that they respect our Armed Forces like most Americans do, even in the face of the military’s ugliest acts, or that from working alongside him (in the case of Sanders and Warren), their sense of personal attachment prevents them from viewing his record more objectively.

Lapses like these are why, in the pursuit of a more progressive vision for the United States of America, it is often more rewarding to be invested in individual issues rather than individual candidates. In this regard, the postmortem borderline deification of Sen. McCain is already excessive, much in the way, for instance, liberals’ elevation of Barack Obama obscures his less commendable devotion to centrism and capitulation to Wall Street and other moneyed interests.

Suffice it to say, then, that not everyone was thrilled with the political career of John McCain, and as far as his legacy is concerned, it should be mixed. Alas, the whitewashing of that legacy appears already underway, a subset of the larger tendency to view long-tenured lawmakers like McCain as sacrosanct, the kinds of leaders we want to see rather than the complicated, flawed humans they are.

There’s a Crisis in Yemen, and the U.S. Bears Responsibility

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Without a formal authorization of war, we’ve been providing weaponry and logistical assistance to a coalition including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while a humanitarian crisis unfolds on the ground in Yemen and al-Qaeda grows in influence. For our involvement, meanwhile, little attention has been paid to Yemen and the extent of the suffering there. (Photo Credit: UNICEF/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

There is only so much time in a day, and only so many resources that news services can devote to the coverage of the pressing matters of the world. Still, the relative sparsity of mainstream attention to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is a phenomenon that a lack of manpower, time, or money can’t explain. Indeed, there’s a conscious effort to sanitize the news and downplay the U.S.’s role in perpetuating the violence that has made for such a catastrophically deadly situation for civilians, and one that has otherwise led to widespread malnutrition and massive displacement of people.

Yemen has been in the throes of a civil war for more than three years, in which Shia-led Houthi rebels backed by Iran have been fighting against the Yemeni government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and yes, the United States of America. With the insinuation of the likes of the Saudis and the UAE into this conflict as part of a coalition designed to ostensibly reinstate Hadi to power, the nature of the violence being inflicted on the people of Yemen has only gotten worse.

Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Harvard University graduate and Yemeni by birth, writing for In These Times, explains the magnitude of the turmoil there, as well as the extent of the U.S.’s involvement:

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have provided the Saudi-led coalition with extensive military support, selling hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, deploying U.S. Special Forces to the Saudi-Yemen border and providing midair refueling of Saudi and Emirati jets during bombing campaigns. American support has continued as more than a million people have been infected with cholera, tens of thousands have been killed by violence, and at least 113,000 children have perished from malnutrition and preventable illnesses.

The publication of Al-Adeimi’s piece comes on the heels of two significant developments relating to the situation in Yemen. One is the August 2 airstrikes carried out by coalition forces on the city of Al-Hudaydah which killed upwards of 55 civilians, strikes that targeted a market and a hospital and of which coalition leadership denies any involvement.

This sort of crime against humanity is difficult, if not impossible, to hide, and of course, is a bad look for the coalition forces supporting Hadi, hence their disavowal. Yet even much of the reporting of this catastrophe tends to overlook America’s role in arming the Saudis who lead the coalition. UPI speaks of the U.S. providing “logistical support” to those responsible for the strikes, but this omission covers for the fact that the U.S. is dealing weapons to Saudi Arabia.

The other relevant development here is the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized a $717 billion defense budget for 2019. This legislation and its language are what especially draws Ms. Al-Adeimi’s focus, language that by itself is insufficient to either limit the scope of America’s complicity in war crimes or to prevent deadly airstrikes against civilians like the ones that ravaged Al-Hudaydah. Al-Adeimi writes:

Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), as well as Representatives Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.)—all of whom oppose the United States’ unauthorized military involvement in Yemen—successfully included provisions in that aim to limit the NDAA’s use toward the war on Yemen. These include measures requiring the Secretary of State to verify that the U.S.-backed coalition is taking steps to alleviate the humanitarian disaster, minimize harm to civilians and end the civil war. According to the bill, such certification is required for the United States to engage in midair refueling to support bombing campaigns. However, the Secretary of State could issue a waiver to allow midair refueling for “security reasons,” so long as a detailed justification is submitted to Congress.

These stipulations are better than nothing, given that, in the words of Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), there is “an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen.” The cooperation between House and Senate lawmakers on including the “Yemen provision” stems from growing concern about U.S. complicity in apparent war crimes.

These caveats, however, pose a significant problem for a coalition that has consistently denied bombing civilians and infrastructure outright despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or dismissed such bombings as “mistakes.” The August 2 attack conducted by the Saudi-led Coalition on al-Thawra Hospital and a popular fish market in the embattled city of Hodeidah has been described by locals as a “massacre.” The airstrikes killed at least 55 civilians and left over 124 people injured, many of whom are fighting for their lives in health facilities that are barely functional due to repeated airstrikes and medicinal shortages resulting from the Saudi/UAE-imposed blockade. Whatever “protections” U.S. lawmakers are extending to Yemeni civilians, those protections did nothing to prevent this assault.

It stands to reason that massacres like the attack on Al-Hudaydah are liable to happen if we sell aircraft and weaponry to Saudi coalition forces backing the Yemeni government. Sure, the U.S. government might ask real nicely for the Saudis not to bomb civilians, but as long as the Saudis possess such superior military capability, and as long as Iran is invested in the Yemeni civil war, shows of force like this are eminently possible, if not probable. After all, if the Saudi-led coalition can carry out attacks on fish markets and hospitals without acknowledging its culpability and without proportionate censure from the international community, there’s no real risk for it to operate with anything other than impunity.

To stress, however, even if America isn’t the one pulling the trigger, they’re still implicated in the devastation in Yemen. What’s more, the United States’ involvement preceded President Donald Trump’s tenure, and has continued despite the absence of a formal authorization by Congress to engage in hostilities there.

How does this happen? How does the United States of America provide “logistical support” for years to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—and thus serve as party to human rights violations—in relative obscurity? As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone tells, the cone of silence surrounding the atrocities in Yemen is owed to a perfect storm of factors that lend themselves to sparing media coverage and limited interest from Jane and John Q. Public. He writes:

Ultimately, the ancillary humanitarian disaster that has grown out of the war has become a distinct tale in itself. The U.N. puts the number of displaced persons at over 2 million, with more than 22 million people “in need.” Yet still the Yemen crisis has received little attention, likely because it represents a whole continuum of American media taboos.

For one thing, the victims are poor nonwhite people from a distant third-world country. Also, our involvement is bipartisan in nature, which takes the usual-suspect cable channels out of the round-the-clock-bleating game (our policies in the region date back to the Obama presidency, and have continued under Trump).

Thirdly, covering the story in detail would require digging into our unsavory relationship with the Saudi government, which has an atrocious human rights record.

In just a few sentences, Taibbi outlines a number of elements lying behind the failure of much of the news media to adequately address the situation in Yemen. There’s a racial component (likely aided by a distrust, for many, of Muslims and a sense of hopelessness about peace in the Middle East), the specter of classism, a shared sense of blame for representatives of both parties (which doesn’t help generate clicks in an era of partisanship), and a long-standing material financial relationship with the Saudi government buttressed by a mutual distrust of communism and a mutual love of oil.

This is all before we even get to discussing the possibility that the U.S. starts selling drones to the Saudis, a concern Taibbi addresses. As part of our aversion to being associated with Saudi violations of international law, we’ve, until now, refused to supply Saudi Arabia with killer drones (although we’re happy to sell them F-15s and help them re-fuel in mid-air). With China already supplying the Saudis and the UAE with drones, meanwhile, there is a push within the United States government to ease restrictions on the sale of these machines. If you were thinking President Trump is leading this push, you were right. It’s unfortunate, and yet wholly predictable.

At the end of the day, America’s penchant for meddling in other countries with military might alongside Yemen’s status as an unsexy topic in this Trump-oriented age of clickbait news has pushed the crisis there to the back pages at a point when Yemeni civilians are the most vulnerable and their plight merits a more robust response from the international community. As Taibbi writes in closing, “Until [Yemen] becomes a political football for some influential person or party, this disaster will probably stay at the back of the line.”

As part of a line including American farmers hurt by Trump’s trade war, immigrant families deported and separated as a function of the administration’s “zero tolerance exercise in cruelty, victims in Puerto Rico of Hurricane Maria and the government’s woefully insufficient response to the storm, and a water crisis in Flint of which the impact stands to be felt for decades to come, that’s a wait that Yemenis in need can ill afford.


What makes matters worse—yes, it does get worse—is that Yemen is home to one of the most dangerous wings of al-Qaeda in the form of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and the bombings/drone attacks and substandard living conditions there only give rise to an increased ability for this terror network to recruit new members.

In this respect, the United States is apparently caught between competing interests. On one hand, in its ongoing (and amorphous) war on terror, it wants to combat the influence of extremist elements in the Arab world and in other countries where Islam has a significant number of followers. On the other hand, it is loyal to a Saudi government engaging in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, a government that is notorious as a sponsor for jihadism. If the cautionary tale of Syria is any indication, then inaction presents its own consequences. As is always the case, there is no perfect solution to a problem marked by hostilities between groups along international and sectarian divides.

Complicating this power struggle and U.S. involvement is the notion that Saudi-Emirati coalition forces are actively negotiating with al-Qaeda to leave key areas in exchange for cash, equipment, and weapons. An Associated Press report by Maggie Michael, Trish Wilson, and Lee Keath details the nature of these arrangements, as well as the anger in certain circles that America is prioritizing coalition concerns with Iranian expansionism over fighting terrorism and stabilizing Yemen.

To be clear, the AP report states there is no evidence that American money has gone to AQAP militants, and the U.S. government has denied complicity with al-Qaeda. This notwithstanding, the gist one gets is that we’re at least aware of these deals. In all, it’s a big mess of factions and interests, and what’s more, the indication in the report that AQAP’s numbers are on the rise suggests there is some degree of comfort for the group in Yemen. At any rate, it runs counter to a narrative that coalition forces are stamping out al-Qaeda’s influence in the region, and for a war we’re involved in that hasn’t even been met with a congressional declaration, that’s not encouraging.

At the heart of the trouble with the Yemen situation is the overwhelming humanitarian need, it should be emphasized. Sadly, and while not to dissuade aid efforts, until real progress can be made to curb open hostilities, treating the victims will only temporarily assuage their wounds and will only help a portion of those impacted. Accordingly, due notice must be paid to the suffering of the Yemeni people, and with that, the United States’ hand in this state of affairs.

Based on principle alone, Yemen deserves more attention, and noting the U.S.’s assistance to the Saudi-Emirati coalition, it’s yet more incumbent upon our nation to accept responsibility. Whether or not the prospects of such recognition are particularly good, however, is another matter entirely.

America Should—But Probably Won’t—Take Responsibility for Promoting Violence in Central America

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No one is here to defend MS-13, but the United States government’s approach to combating gang violence and illegal immigration from Central America, as well as its refusal to take ownership of its role in perpetuating poverty and unrest in the so-called Northern Triangle, may be counterproductive to its aims in these regards. (Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation)

When you are Donald Trump or one of his surrogates and regularly divorce cause and effect—or are simply divorced from reality—you are free to distort details and expel falsehoods to support your narrative. Though it has been repeatedly observed, it’s worth stressing that Trump started his presidential campaign spewing inaccuracies about Mexican people as criminals and rapists, without revealing any master plan to fix this “broken” immigration system. It was outrageous. It was reprehensible. What’s more, it worked.

Since then, Trump and Co. haven’t exactly gotten more accurate or presidential over time. While concern for the separation of immigrant families, how and where they’re being detained, and how and when—if at all—those already separated will be re-united have dominated headlines, the Trump administration hasn’t softened its rhetoric any. Outside of relenting on the issue of separating children from their mothers, President Trump has authorized the creation of a “denaturalization” task force, one that seeks to remove naturalized citizens on clerical or other “technicalities” and which has evoked comparisons to the Red Scare.

Critics of the White House’s immigration policy have taken to referring to it in rather dark terms, labeling it “ethnic cleansing.” They’re not wrong, either. Amid the elaboration of a white nationalist agenda which has seen senior advisor Stephen Miller and Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen emerge as figureheads of the ongoing crisis and, at that, perpetrators, Trump has engaged in more than his fair share of scaremongering in public speeches, at rallies, and on Twitter.

A particular source of animus—and deservedly so in light of their actions, let’s be clear—is Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13. The international gang, associated with various acts of criminality and violence, has served as a go-to bogeyman for Trump in his attacks on Democrats. As Trump would have it, a vote for the Dems in November is a vote to “let MS-13 run wild in our communities.” ICE, meanwhile, is “liberating” communities every day from the organization whose motto reportedly is “kill, rape, control.”

Indeed, MS-13 and other gangs that recruit from Central America and Mexico are a real concern, but Trump is using the specter of past incidents involving its members and existing fears and urban legends about gang violence to try to drum up support for his “zero tolerance” immigration policy and enhanced border security measures. Even belaboring the use of the word “animals” to describe MS-13 has a dog-whistle underlying meaning, as Trump’s indiscriminate employ of this pejorative has been interpreted as a general dehumanization of immigrants and people of color. If Trump hadn’t kicked off his presidential bid denigrating an entire country and its people, we might have a chance of giving him the benefit of the doubt. By now, though, many of us know better, and that Trump knew exactly what he was saying when he used the word “animals” with all its vagaries.

It’s bad enough that Donald Trump and his flunkies embrace an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to undocumented immigrants as a subset of the larger conversation about who is or isn’t considered a “true” American. You know, largely because of that whole “being a decent human being” thing that Trump seems not to be able to understand. What makes this stance yet more problematic is the notion it fails to recognize—unconsciously or willingly—the United States’ complicity in the conditions which have led to a refugee/asylee crisis in Central America, notably in its “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras).

Cole Kazdin, writing for VICE Media, outlines how the U.S. has had a hand in destabilizing Central American nations long before the era of Trump. Citing Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor of Latin American studies at the University of Arizona, heavily throughout the piece, Kazdin depicts a pattern of American intervention on behalf of its own interests—and usually at the expense of competing interests within those countries.

In Guatemala, back in the 1950s, under the guise of fighting communism, the United States helped organize a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected government and continued to train the Guatemalan army into the 1970s, a civil war that Oglesby characterizes in no uncertain terms as “genocide.” In 1970s Nicaragua, the U.S. government directly inserted itself in the clash between the democratic nationalist Sandinistas and the dictatorship helmed by the Somoza family, later supporting the Contras, a material relationship that infamously saw the Reagan administration fund these contrarrevolucionarios through the covert sale of arms to Iran. In El Salvador and Honduras, meanwhile, the U.S. intervened on behalf of the Salvadoran government in an effort to squelch the socialist group FMLN and held military exercises in Honduras.

As Kazdin notes, this is before we even get to the “war on drugs,” an ongoing situation set in motion as part of Richard Nixon’s political agenda that pushed cartels out of Colombia and into the impoverished, unstable Northern Triangle. Going back to MS-13, while its activities are relevant to the war on drugs and their criminality is certainly not to be lauded, Kazdin, via Oglesby, stresses that while the group has strong Salvadoran roots, its origins are traced back to Los Angeles, not Central America.

Furthermore, dwelling on MS-13 overlooks the larger issue of government-linked crime networks that come directly out of the counterinsurgency experience of the 1980s,” according to Oglesby. The American government may not be directly encouraging the rise of gang numbers, but by indirectly paving the way for their growth, its influence looms large. As it is in the Middle East and elsewhere, regime change can produce some unfortunate unintended consequences.

With all this in mind, and getting to the issue of migration and asylum-seeking, despite its hand in catalyzing unsafe, untenable situations in Central America, the United States has made it a habit of refusing asylum to applicants from south of its border, particularly those coming from El Salvador. Now with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement that domestic violence and gang violence are no longer grounds for asylum, there is every concern that people will continue to try crossing the desert and relying on criminal networks to help smuggle them north, which presents a new set of dangers. Trump and Co. are keeping with the historical trend, but in a way that is seemingly even more overt in terms of racism and xenophobia, and holding to the idea that these additional perilous hoops through which to jump will prove an effective deterrent to illegal immigration, and a disincentive to would-be gangbangers near and south of the border.

Here’s the thing, though: these methods may not be having their intended effect, or may be even serving to exacerbate the situations they profess to fix. On the migration front, Elizabeth Oglesby indicates that militarizing the border serves only to increase migration. Not only has the price of smuggling people north soared commensurate with the uptick in danger, but since it is that much more difficult to return, more families are migrating together to try to keep the unit together.

Another point worth considering: what people are trying to escape in Central America might be as bad or worse than what they face trying to immigrate illegally into the United States. Andres Oppenheimer, writing for The Miami Herald, agrees, and believes the problem will keep getting worse as long as parents have to fear for their lives and those of their children.

Oppenheimer cites Roger Noriega, who served in the State Department under George W. Bush, and who points to gang violence and organized crime—fed to a large extent by a demand for illegal drugs in the States—as destructive forces to economies and state institutions, not to mention individuals who run afoul of bad actors. For too many families in Central America and Mexico, there is a real risk of their children being forced into the employ of gangs and/or having to pay these gangs off for “protection.” Moreover, governments and officials are too often corrupt, powerless to diminish the influence of gangs, or both. Such is not a recipe for substantive positive change.

Trying to put a bandage on the illegal immigration situation in the form of fences/walls and more Border Patrol agents, as Oppenheimer and others would argue, therefore does a poor job of stopping the bleeding when the underlying health of these source countries for asylum-seekers is suspect. In terms of possible solutions, therefore, it would seem prudent, if not necessary, to invest in these countries in a humanitarian capacity and to help fund and mobilize efforts to help combat corruption and crime. Instead, Congress has reduced assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras by almost $85 million since 2017, which almost certainly won’t help willing governments combat the influence of criminal organizations. In other words, isolationism isn’t the answer.

As for MS-13, treating its influence with a “firm hand” may limit its effectiveness and bring up a new set of ethical and moral issues about the procedures used to combat gang violence. In El Salvador, the U.S. government has thrown millions of dollars at curbing the influence of Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs, and the brutality and corruption associated with the Salvadoran government’s approach may be proving counterproductive. A detailed special report for CNN by Nick Paton Walsh, Barbara Arvanitidis, and Bryan Avelar on the link between U.S.-funded police and illegal executions in El Salvador provides a sense of perspective on this note:

While the US program is aimed at improving the effectiveness and legality of El Salvador’s fight against gangs, narcotraffickers and human smugglers, the “Firm Hand” strategy being deployed now by the country’s government — against a gang culture so widespread it amounts to an insurgency of sorts — runs counter to lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to some analysts. In those US-led conflicts, corrupt security forces and brutality exacerbated the ferocity of the insurgency.

Analysts have noted that brutal police tactics have previously backfired, as the gang members killed are sometimes looked upon more favorably in their neighborhoods, or less guilty than intelligence suggests, causing anger in the community and prompting some residents to turn away from the police and towards the gangs.

Not for nothing, but Afghanistan and Iraq are not the kind of examples you want to lead with as analogs of success in dealing with hostile groups. Even when dealing with a potential criminal element in an environment as conducive to drug-related violence as El Salvador, abuses by authorities are liable to produce a backlash, despite the public’s desire for their leaders to be tough on crime. Simply put, a balance has to be struck, and extrajudicial killings tip the scales the wrong way.

At the end of the day, and at a fundamental level, the questions that should be asked by the Trump administration are as follows: 1) “What are we trying to accomplish regarding immigration and violence as it impacts the United States, Mexico, and Central America?” 2) “Are we accomplishing what we have set out to accomplish?” and 3) “If so, are the solutions worth the costs?” Thus far, however, there is little to suggest the relevant problems have even been adequately defined, let alone sufficiently addressed, and with all the finger-pointing that President Trump has done, you can be sure he hasn’t considered America’s role in perpetuating worrisome trends.


Returning to Cole Kazdin’s column for a moment, while Elizabeth Oglesby’s damning analysis of U.S. relations with Central America features prominently in her analysis, the words of civil rights advocates and other experts carry as much weight—if not more—and succinctly state the case for America’s direct engagement with Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle in a more diplomatic and even-handed way.

Per Xochitl Sanchez, TPS (Temporary Protected Status) coordinator for CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, the United States has “a moral and social responsibility to this population of immigrants as they are complicit in the creation of the conditions of forced migration” of these countries, notably El Salvador. Charles Kamasaki, senior cabinet advisor for UNIDOS US, also cited within Kazdin’s piece, likewise believes in acting in accord with a moral imperative steeped in equanimity and reciprocity. As Kamasaki puts forth, “For those who felt strongly that we should intervene in Central America, whether it was to fight communism, or to maintain good conditions for business so American consumers could enjoy cheap bananas or Nicaraguan coffee, I would argue that responsibility’s a two-way street. If we enjoy benefits, then that brings with it some obligations.”

Alas, “diplomacy” in the era of President Donald Trump evidently involves starting trade wars and other confrontations with our presumed allies, railing against the likes of Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel while praising dictatorial leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. If we can’t get along with Canada, a row with whom comedian Seth Meyers likened to “holding a grudge against a golden retriever puppy,” there’s obviously little room for a spirit of cooperation with countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, nations replete with brown-skinned individuals who speak Spanish and, therefore, must be demonized as part of Trump’s demagoguery.

For Christ’s sake, the man picked a fight with Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the island was hit by a devastating hurricane. These storm victims are American citizens. Just because they are people of color and can’t vote in congressional and presidential elections doesn’t mean they should be an after-thought, especially not when noting the mainland’s role in loading the territory with crippling debt. Instead, Trump being Trump, he lashes out on Twitter and calls people names—especially when they are women and/or people of color and dare to challenge him. I mean, if one were to visit the Oval Office and find a dartboard with a picture of Maxine Waters’s face on it, would he or she be really surprised? Dude’s got an ax to grind.

While harboring guilt about the treatment of Central America’s Northern Triangle to the extent it stunts our ability to act and move forward would be its own issue, that the United States’ historical culpability continues to go largely unspoken makes the prospects of fixing problems which affect North America too (such as gang violence and mass migration) rather grim. America should take more responsibility for promoting violence in Central America. But it probably won’t, and until it does, it would seem the wounds that mark many Central American institutions will continue to stay open.

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