Yes, They’re “Concentration Camps”

Detention centers don’t have to be Auschwitz or Dachau to be labeled “concentration camps.” (Photo Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

When asked about her colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” in reference to detention centers near our southern border, Rep. Ilhan Omar had this to say about the ensuing controversy: “There are camps, and people are being concentrated. This is very simple. I don’t know why this is a controversial thing to say.”

Right-wing media and organizations skewed toward the interests of American Jews quickly lambasted Omar for the perceived insensitivity of her comments as well as lamented her supposed continued use of anti-Semitic imagery. Here’s the problem, though: both she and Ocasio-Cortez are right.

First things first, and sorry to be that guy who cites the dictionary in making a point but here we are, let’s define the phrase. According to Oxford Dictionaries, a “concentration camp” is:

A place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution. The term is most strongly associated with the several hundred camps established by the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe in 1933–45, among the most infamous being Dachau, Belsen, and Auschwitz.

Hmm. “Large numbers of people,” “persecuted minorities,” “deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.” These qualifiers all seem applicable to the detention centers and other facilities housing families detained at the border and elsewhere in the United States. According to the Department of Homeland Security, close to 45,000 detainees were being held daily on average in the United States as of 2018. What’s more, this figure has risen considerably from the less-than-7,000 detainees daily observed back in 1994 and comes as part of an upward spike concordant with Donald Trump’s political rise. Simply put, these numbers are no accident.

On the persecuted minorities front, um, have you heard the president speak about the Hispanic/Latinx community? As it stands to reason geographically, most of the people in detention in the U.S. are from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Would conditions in facilities holding immigrants/asylum-seekers be nearly as poor (more on this in a moment) if these people were coming from, say, Norway? Of course not. As evidenced by his defensiveness any time he is challenged by a person of color—especially if that person is a woman—Donald Trump projects his hatred toward members of minority groups and immigrants on the beliefs of all Americans.

Granted, he’s not alone in his racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry; he got elected after all. Still, he’s not speaking for all Americans when he spews his nativist rhetoric buttressed by false or misleading claims and statistics. Like their sheer number as a function of rising trends in immigrant detention, the country of origin of these detainees is highly relevant. Moreover, their demonization obscures the ways in which the U.S. has helped fuel surges in migrants crossing our southern border. In other words, not only do Trump et al.‘s arguments distort the present, but they fail to retrospectively appreciate America’s role in creating the conditions which have led to increases in the number of asylum-seekers from Mexico and Central America. This, too, is no mistake.

And regarding the “relatively small area with inadequate facilities” bit? Yes, this and then some. The story of these detention camps and even for-profit centers and prisons has been one of abject cruelty shown toward detainees. Facilities have been overcrowded well beyond stated capacity. Staffing is frequently insufficient with little guarantee employees are experienced enough or trained well enough to handle their appointed tasks. Adequate health care is often severely lacking if not completely absent, as is supervision of child detainees by adults. Even the availability of blankets, soap, and toothbrushes is of issue. These standards of operation fall below even the auspices afforded to prisoners of war per the Geneva Conventions, and Justice Department immigration attorney Sarah Fabian (among others) should be ashamed of arguing to the contrary.

On these three counts, the detention and separation of families at the border would easily seem to meet the definition spelled out above. Obviously, we’re not to the point of forced labor or awaiting mass execution. This is not Nazi Germany and Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. If these are the main distinctions we’re making, however, pardon me for believing we might be missing the forest for the proverbial trees. We should never forget the horrors of the Holocaust nor should we diminish the danger anti-Semitism represents in today’s world. The experience of Jews here and abroad is a unique one and this merits respect.

At the same time, we can recognize that the use of the term “concentration camp,” historically loaded as it may be, is not one made in a flippant manner. As discussed, the conditions of these detention centers would appear to meet the basic requirements delineated by the dictionary definition. Additionally, there is the matter of how urgent the situation is at our southern border. We are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Quibbling over semantics risks losing sight of the magnitude of the atrocities being inflicted on people whose only “sin” is crossing the border, in so many cases running from a dangerous situation in their country of origin. It also invites people like Liz Cheney to use Jews purely as political capital, leveraging their suffering amid disingenuous partisan attacks on Democrats.

This is why many refer to border security as a “wedge” issue. Allowing division based on bad-faith discourse is falling prey to the designs of Trump apologists and others itching at the chance to divide and conquer Democrats. We should expect attacks against Ocasio-Cortez and Omar from those on the right who frame the first-year members of Congress as a threat and whose fear (but not fearmongering, to be clear) is welcomed because it exposes the ugliness of their prejudiced antipathy. On the other hand, when those of us on the left and the center-left are effectively providing cover for an administration pursuing a white supremacist agenda and employing genocidal tactics to this end, we should really take stock of our priorities.


In elaborating her position on immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed to the opinions of “experts” on the subject. In particular, AOC cited an article for Esquire by Jack Holmes which name-checks journalist Andrea Pitzer, who quite literally wrote the book on concentration camps.

According to Pitzer, the “mass detention of civilians without trial” is good enough for her to satisfy the requirements of a “concentration camp system.” This applies to camps in Nazi Germany, sure, but also Cuba, France, South Africa, the Soviet Union, and in the creation of “internment camps” to hold people of Japanese descent, the United States. Holmes, in speaking to historian Waitman Wade Beorn, whose basis is in Holocaust and genocide studies, also notes how the term is used by historians in a broader sense. According to Beorn, not every concentration camp has to be a death camp. Frequently, the purpose of such a camp is achieved simply by separating one group from another.

At the crux of these camps’ existence are the militarization of the border and the dehumanization of the asylum/immigration enforcement process. For the Trump administration, the large-scale indefinite detention of civilians is the culmination of an intentional effort to depict a spike in border crossings as a “national emergency” and to label asylum-seekers/immigrants as subhuman. It’s an “invasion.” They’re “animals.” Not to beat the dead horse of lore or anything, but this is specific, targeted language. It’s not unintentional, or for that matter, normal.

What’s worse, the longer these facilities operate, the worse the conditions get and the easier it becomes to distance ourselves from the detainees because they are “sick” or because they are “criminals.” This is not purely theoretical, either. Circumstances have worsened. Children and adults alike have died as a result of confinement. And this is exactly what this administration has intended: to make things so bad that families wouldn’t want to come here. As Beorn underscores, it’s not a prison or a holding area or waiting area—it’s a policy. It occurs, no less, at the expense of people who haven’t been, in many cases, charged with a crime. In some instances, even U.S. citizens are being apprehended and detained for days at a time. Those documented occurrences, while perhaps more shocking or unnerving, are rare. For now.

If all this weren’t bad enough, that these facilities are so remote and that they exist in what Beorn describes as a “sort of extralegal, extrajudicial, somewhat-invisible no-man’s land” makes it that much more unlikely these camps will be closed or that visible protests with the ability to meaningfully sway public opinion can be organized on the premises. Holmes points to the prison at Guantanamo Bay as an example in this regard. President Barack Obama repeatedly vowed to close Gitmo, but it “had been ingrained in the various institutions and branches of American constitutional government.”

In the nebulous space where human rights abuses and constitutional protections get overlooked in the name of “national security,” the justifications for these camps staying open can grow more numerous and vague. The names may have changed—George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, meet Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller—and so too have the targets of the repression (though with fears of war with Iran ever present, who knows), but the story is very much the same.

Holmes’s piece ends on this sobering note:

In most cases, these camps are not closed by the executive or the judiciary or even the legislature. It usually requires external intervention. (See: D-Day) That obviously will not be an option when it comes to the most powerful country in the history of the world, a country which, while it would never call them that, and would be loathe to admit it, is now running a system at the southern border that is rapidly coming to resemble the concentration camps that have sprung up all over the world in the last century. Every system is different. They don’t always end in death machines. But they never end well.

“Let’s say there’s 20 hurdles that we have to get over before we get to someplace really, really, really bad,” Pitzer says. “I think we’ve knocked 10 of them down.”

We’re already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and it stands to get worse. Make no mistake: these concentration camps—yes, concentration camps—are a stain on the fabric of America’s moral character, a fabric of which the resiliency is continually being tested under President Trump and which already reveals its share of black marks and tears over its history despite this nation’s overall promise.

We should all own this sad chapter in the saga of our proud nation. And above all others, though his self-absorption and cultivated public image won’t allow acknowledgment on his part, Trump should be tied to the cruel escalation of Clinton-era and Obama-era border policies behind the mass detention of asylum-seekers and immigrants. For a man who loves slapping his name on things, including other people’s successes, his legacy as president should forever be linked with this disgrace.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube: Where the Rules May or May Not Apply

YouTube hasn’t removed Steven Crowder’s content despite his repeated violations of its terms of service prohibiting abusive behavior and hate speech. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a recent piece for The Intercept, Sam Biddle outlines how Project Veritas, a conservative group known for using deception and subterfuge in its attempts to expose the alleged misdeeds of leftists and left-leaning outlets like The Washington Post, has openly violated Facebook’s guidelines about the use of fake profiles in the service of “coordinated authentic behavior.”

The article, which includes deposition from members of the group admitting to how manufactured Facebook profiles factor into their work as well as context about the group’s backing, has this to say about Facebook’s oversight of the content it hosts alongside the company’s stated goal of stemming disinformation and propaganda:

The real issue is uneven, arbitrary enforcement of “the rules.” Max Read, writing in New York magazine on another social network’s enforcement blunders, argued that “the problem for YouTube is that for rules to be taken seriously by the people they govern, they need to be applied consistently and clearly.” YouTube is about as terrible at this exercise as Facebook is, and there’s a good chance that if Facebook treated malicious right-wing American exploitation of its network the same way it treats malicious foreign exploitation of its network, it would probably botch the whole thing and end up burning people who actually do use phony Facebook profiles for work toward the public good.

That a company like Facebook is even in a position to create “rules” like the coordinated inauthentic behavior policy that apply to a large chunk of the Earth’s population is itself a serious problem, one made considerably worse by completely erratic enforcement. It’s bad enough having a couple guys in California take up the banner of defending “Democracy” around the world through the exclusive control of one of the most powerful information organs in human history; if nothing else, we should hope their decisions are predictable and consistent.

While Biddle acknowledges that Facebook would probably screw up its attempts to officiate its policies against domestic political manipulation anyway, that it gives the practice a half-hearted, inconsistent effort doesn’t make matters better.

As the allusion to YouTube in Biddle’s closing additionally suggests, this phenomenon of tech giants being inadequate gatekeepers of authentic information free from hate speech is a pattern of frustrating behavior for observers across the political spectrum. Recently, YouTube caught a lot of heat from the journalist community when Carlos Maza, producer, writer, and host of the “Strikethrough” video series at Vox, made a public plea to the video-sharing website in a series of tweets pointing to homophobic and racist abuse by Steven Crowder, a conservative talk show host and self-professed comedian who has near four million subscribers to his name.

Crowder’s hollow defense against Maza’s compilation of all the times he referred to him as a “queer,” a “Mexican,” or demeaned his “lispy” delivery while caricaturing gay men has been that his is a comedy show and that his comments amount to nothing more than “playful ribbing.” This, however, to most objective observers, is unmitigated bullshit. Crowder’s repeated jabs at Maza for his criticisms of right-wing talking heads like Tucker Carlson are much stronger than the barbs you’d reserve for one of your friends—and even then they’re probably not all that appropriate and definitely not funny.

Crowder’s protestations of YouTube’s responses during this whole affair also miss the mark. Predictably, YouTube first addressed Maza’s plight by doing, well, nothing, claiming Crowder hadn’t violated its terms of service. This, like Crowder’s claims of innocence, is bogus. YouTube’s rules explicitly outlaw “content or behavior intended to maliciously harass, threaten, or bully others” and furthermore view hate speech as a violation. Representatives from the company explained that it opted not to take action against Crowder because he didn’t direct his viewers to harass Maza, which is immaterial to the above concerns and, at any rate, irrelevant in consideration of the notion he himself (Crowder) was the one doing the bullying.

Eventually, however, enough people raised objections whereby YouTube moved to demonetize Crowder, itself a token gesture given the conservative provocateur gets the bulk of his revenue from merchandise sales (including his ever-tasteful “Socialism Is for Fags” T-shirt depicting Che Guevara). Crowder’s reaction? This was YouTube caving to the demands of a corporation throwing its weight around to “censor” a conservative voice in accordance with the demands of a leftist who had targeted him, one of the “little guys,” because he didn’t like his viewpoints. Never mind that Maza is a gay Latino who regular receives abuse on both Crowder’s channel and Vox each time he makes a post. Right, Mr. Crowder, you’re the marginalized one here.

This isn’t censorship, though. This is a private company enforcing its rules by which Crowder did not abide. What’s more, it’s not even doing that right. For violations of its terms, YouTube should be removing this content, not simply demonetizing it. Instead, the offending remarks remain and Crowder gets to use this episode to rally his troops and paint Maza as the aggressor. Show your outrage by signing up for the Mug Club! What better way than to proudly exhibit your freedom!

At a minimum, this is an episode that makes YouTube look very bad. That its decision-making appears so wishy-washy lends credence to the criticism that the company is trying merely to avoid accusations of bias rather than doing the right thing. It doesn’t help either that these events are unfolding during Pride Month, an occasion for which YouTube has touted its commitment to the LGBTQ community. If it were really interested in upholding the civil rights of a vulnerable subset of the population beyond mere window-dressing, maybe YouTube would actually stand in solidarity with its LGBTQ creators rather than banning them too in the interest of purported “fairness.”


I mentioned Twitter in the headline for this article. Emil Protalinski, news editor for VentureBeat, while trashing YouTube for, alongside perpetuating the Maza-Crowder fiasco, allowing its automated recommendation system to show random people’s videos to pedophiles and providing platforms for content creators to capitalize on the anger of impressionable young male viewers, likewise takes Facebook and Twitter to task for their uneven commitment to rules they aver are clearly posted and stated.

In both cases, Protalinski views failure to consistently uphold a set of guidelines as occurring so often that there are simply “too many examples to list.” The instances he does highlight, meanwhile, are salient and illustrative. Re Facebook, its refusal to remove a video headily edited to make Nancy Pelosi look drunk, senile, or some combination thereof was highly criticized at the time for irresponsibility in allowing false/misleading content to exist contrary to the company’s stated goals.

As for Twitter, Protalinski cites the social media behemoth’s dilatory response to other apps and sites banning conspiracy theory promulgator Alex Jones from its service. If nothing else, Twitter is woefully behind the curve when it comes to properly marshaling the content it hosts. And, not for nothing, but why are there so many Nazis hanging around? Like, why is banning them evidently so controversial?

Lather, rinse, repeat. We’ve sadly seen this before and we’ll see it again. Protalinski writes:

There are two whack-a-mole cycles happening on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. First, these companies fail to write clear rules. Disgusting content on their platform is brought to light. It isn’t removed. Users protest. The companies point to their rules. More outrage follows. Finally, if there is enough of a blowback, apologies are issued, the rules are “clarified,” and the example content is taken down.

The second cycle is happening at the same time. A given rule is already clear and specific. Disgusting content is brought to light. It isn’t removed. Users protest. The companies fail to explain why it wasn’t removed immediately or make up excuses. More outrage follows. Finally, if there is enough of a blowback, apologies are issued, the rules are “clarified,” and the example content is taken down.

In these cycles, only blatant and high-profile cases are removed. And that process can take anywhere from weeks to months from when the original content was published. By then it has done the damage and generated the revenue.

In either scenario, the sticking point is not necessarily the specificity of rules (although lacking clear standards of conduct is in it of itself a problem), but rather the inability or unwillingness to consistently enforce them independent of political affiliation or other identifying characteristic. Without the requisite amount of outrage or clout of the individuals expressing that outrage, nothing moves forward. Even then, actions taken are liable to be too little, too late, and backed by an inauthentic, insufficient rationale. In other words, and to echo Protalinski, the damage is done.

To be fair, this business of moderating the wealth of content that appears on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is no easy task given its sheer volume and the rapidity with which it is created. At the same time, this is the responsibility these companies bear as providers. If your priorities involve retaining your share of the content creation/streaming market and growing your business, you’re going to have invest in a modicum of safeguards to ensure that users and creators alike feel comfortable using your platform.

So spare us the half-assed excuses and non-apology apologies. If people like Steven Crowder don’t want to play by the rules, invite them to abide by your code of conduct or find somewhere else to peddle their hate and disinformation. I, for one, could do without the moral quandary I face by using your services—and I know I’m not alone.

On Anti-Vaxxers, Climate Change Deniers, and Flat Earthers

Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, Flat Earthers: you are among those encouraged not to cherry-pick data and rely on charlatans to tell you what is wrong with our world today. (Photo Credit: Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
  1. The Earth is an oblate spheroid, not flat.
  2. Climate change on Earth is real.
  3. Vaccines don’t cause autism and you should definitely vaccinate your kids.

Many of us would agree readily to all of the above. Ample evidence exists that glaciers are melting, the seas are rising and warming with the rest of the planet, and more and more animal species are facing extinction. The link between vaccines and autism is a spurious one, having been debunked numerous times over. The Earth is round because, well, it’s 2019 and we have technology that lets us see that sort of thing.

And yet, there are those people who would contest one or more of these statements. Flat Earthers, as the name implies, contend that the Earth is flat, citing visual evidence. Anti-vaxxers, often inspired by some Republicans/libertarians, insist that the government is wrong to mandate they vaccinate their children, making the issue a matter of personal freedoms. Climate change deniers dispute that global warming exists, argue against humans’ role in promoting deleterious climate change, and/or say that all this carbon dioxide we’re creating is actually a good thing because plants need it. Right.

It’s one thing, for instance, for Flat Earthers to more narrowly believe that our globe is not a globe and have it end then and there. The rest of us say one thing, they say another—to each his or her own. Sure, some (or most) of us might laugh at their expense, but we agree to disagree.

The problem arises when subscription to an alternative viewpoint potentially puts the non-subscribers among us at risk. Anti-vaxxers are wingnuts to be dismissed—that is, until areas start encountering outbreaks of measles, a disease said to be eliminated from the United States in 2000. Climate change deniers are all well and good—except for the notion the world is on fire and we need all hands on deck to prevent a climate catastrophe. And when even Flat Earthers move from a relatively innocuous refusal to accept that the world is round to the theory that tragedies like the Holocaust and the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting never happened, it would appear their healthy skepticism is anything but.

Such is why all of the above extreme stances existing in opposition to verifiable scientific evidence must be regarded seriously, even if some members of these various movements aren’t wholeheartedly committed or straightforward. Susceptibility to mis- and disinformation campaigns is a pressing matter, especially in the digital age. A few errant clicks and you may find yourself down the proverbial rabbit hole, led astray by some YouTuber with a cursory grasp of video production and a passion for pushing conspiracy theories. Or—who knows!—that red-blooded American you’ve been talking to online might not have your best interests in mind—and he or she might actually be half a world away at that.

As a point of emphasis, the growth of these factions is disconcerting. Though measles is on the rise in the U.S. after a historic low, it’s not all the fault of anti-vaccination rhetoric. Inadequate access to vaccinations for poorer Americans/families of color and imported measles cases from overseas are contributing factors, too. Nonetheless, the anti-vaxxer movement is gaining traction and, along with it, so is the risk that measles or any other highly contagious disease may spread. Climate change skepticism, even if it were to be standing pat, is an impediment to the kind of progress we need to be making on this issue. Simply put, staying still at a moment in which we need to be moving forward is effectively sending us backwards.

Making matters worse is the idea these movements are at the cusp of becoming mainstream if not already there. A handful of celebrities—some of them comparatively minor but even so (cough, B.o.B., cough)—have counted themselves at one point among those who doubt the sincerity of NASA and other scientific organizations for putting forth a round-Earth framework. Republican leaders like Kentucky governor Matt Bevin promote anti-vaccination talking points from their seats as elected officials. On the climate change front, meanwhile, there is perhaps no more prominent skeptic than the Denier-in-Chief himself, Donald Trump, who once famously referred to the observed effects of climate change as a “hoax.”

These aren’t just fringe campaigns. They possess real potential to influence large swaths of individuals, people who are our neighbors, parents of children at our schools, even family and friends. Like the diseases vaccines are developed to guard against, left unchecked, they have the ability to spread and do real damage. What’s more, addressing them in the wrong way could make holders of their core beliefs that much more resistant to change.

This begs the question: how do those of us who have accepted phenomena like the efficacy of vaccines, human beings’ part in contributing to climate change, and the very roundness of Planet Earth as fact have a conversation with those who don’t? How do we operate in an environment in which truth almost seems to be treated as merely a construct, a relativistic abstract concept independent of what we can test and infer? Despite the obvious perils accepting alternative theories presents, the evident uptick of pseudoscience peddlers is, in it of itself, alarming. As the great thinker (if only in his own mind) Ben Shapiro has said, facts don’t care about your feelings. Fine. Great. But when it’s my facts vs. your “facts,” we are at quite an impasse indeed.


Earlier, I noted how it’s easy these days, as a result of a few errant clicks, to find oneself in the company of a YouTuber who peddles nonsensical arguments and unsubstantiated conjecture to serve a particular narrative. On that note, I’m about to supplement my stances with content proffered by…a YouTuber. Wait, the climate-change-eschewin’, flat-Earth-believin’, no-vaccine-havin’ among you may say, you think your YouTubers are better than our YouTubers because they subscribe to the prevailing views of the scientific community and we don’t? My answer to this is, um, in a nutshell, yes. Yes, I do.

In a video essay on the Flat Earth ideology from December of last year, Harry Brewis, known by the handle “Hbomberguy,” argues that, despite how ludicrous some of us might find this position, its holders may not necessarily, ahem, flat out reject scientific principles. He explains in the waning moments of his 40-plus-minute production:

These people are attempting a form of science, and I think that’s what really gets to me about them—not simply that they’re pretending they’re scientists who’ve secretly found the truth. … People like Mark [Sargent] are right to want to question authorities on issues. They’re right to want to question everything they know about reality and the society they live in, and that’s because at the center of Flat Earth—not the North Pole, the actual center of the ideology—its core is a tiny, shining fragment of a systemic critique. It’s the beginning of trying to understand what’s wrong with our society and what to do about it.

… People seek these solutions because they perceive, on some level, a problem—and they’re right. Something is wrong with the world right now. The world is figuratively on fire. World leaders are asleep at the wheel. There’s nothing in place to prevent another massive financial crash which will destroy thousands if not millions of livelihoods. And ecologically speaking, on top of being, you know, figuratively on fire, the Earth is literally on fire. Wildfires are getting worse, temperatures are all over the place, ice is melting at an astounding rate. Even on a globe Earth, the edge is coming fast.

So I can’t blame anyone for feeling alienated and lonely about living in late-capitalist society. At least under feudalism, we had job security. So of course people are going to try to find something that helps them cope or seems like a solution. That’s why you get cults. That’s why you get Scientology. That’s why you get Jordan Peterson supporters. Something is wrong and we can all tell, and some people have arrived at a solution that doesn’t really work or at the very least makes them feel a little bit better.

… Believing these things isn’t a solution, and it’s not really accurate about what the problems are. The problem isn’t NASA. The problem isn’t the Earth being flat. The problem is something else.

While mercilessly roasting the more outspoken promulgators of Flat Earth like Mark Sargent and calling out its most bigoted elements, Brewis does seem to possess a certain degree of sympathy for its followers. The same might apply to anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. They feel something is wrong. They distrust the authorities and institutions that, to a large extent, have let them down.

When someone comes along and offers them an alternative, who tells them they are right to be scared and eagerly points out a scapegoat, that’s how we get parents who decry the long arm of the state in forcing them to vaccinate their children. That’s how we get millions of viewers who believe the likes of Steven Crowder regarding the notion the ice at the poles is growing, not shrinking. That’s how we get Brexit and President Donald Trump. These people are right to be skeptical. Unfortunately, they’ve picked the wrong matters to be skeptical about and the wrong people to guide them in their search for meaning and purpose.

This rejection of scientific consensus based on anecdotal evidence (“I’ve never seen the Earth curve—have you?”) or disqualification due to a presumed agenda (e.g. vaccines as a ploy of the for-profit health care industry) is not to be utterly exonerated. Certainly, those individuals who would exploit others’ susceptibility to manipulation in this way should be held accountable as well.

The question of how to interact with these types of people, however, still lingers. How do you penetrate a world in which facts don’t matter to people who claim to believe in science? A piece by Bill Radke and Sarah Leibovitz accompanying Radke’s interview of Boston University philosopher of science Lee McIntyre for KUOW’s The Record might provide some insight.

As McIntyre did or at least attempted to do going undercover at the Flat Earth International Conference, he approached attendees armed not with evidence or an attacking or condescending manner, but with a “philosopher’s question”: What would it take to convince you you’re wrong? According to the article, they didn’t have an answer.

McIntyre submits that this is a hallmark of anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, Flat Earthers and the like and thus where they diverge from true scientists: they cherry-pick data, ignoring information that disagrees with what they believe. To be fair, in a time in which Russian bots and other foreign agents try to influence public opinion and in which information reaches our senses faster than we can rightly process, it’s not just the InfoWars-Breitbart crowd who can fall prey to what is termed “confirmation bias.”

Prevailing trends of the population at large notwithstanding, McIntyre cautions against simply brushing these alternative-theory movements aside for fear of encouraging other campaigns built on faulty reasoning. He also reasons you shouldn’t write off their subscribers or cut them off, but rather “engage, listen, and work the facts in where you can.” Additionally, scientists need to do their part in standing up for the importance of uncertainty to the scientific method. It’s OK not to have the answers—that is, as long as this admission is made in the service of trying to find them in earnest.

The Earth is an oblate spheroid, not flat. Climate change on Earth is real. Vaccines don’t cause autism and you should definitely vaccinate your kids. It’s important we uphold these truths. At the same time, we can engage non-believers in an accessible, trust-oriented way and draw attention to the real causes of the problems Harry Brewis and others might enumerate. After all, we’re going to need a communal effort to solve them and it’s going to take all types of people working together to do it.

There Sure Are a Lot of “Lone” Wolves Out There

Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a Charleston, SC church in 2015, though considered a “lone wolf” attacker, is one of a growing number of people dining on hateful beliefs promulgated in online circles. (Photo Credit: Charleston County Sheriff’s Office)

A bar or nightclub. An office building. A place of worship. A school. Seemingly weekly, news of horrific acts of violence by a “lone wolf” attacker reaches our consciousness. Just recently, a shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in southern California, which left one person dead and three injured, made headlines.

The profile is all too familiar: a sole gunman entered and opened fire with an assault weapon. That the shooting occurred on Passover also suggests this was more than a coincidence; multiple officials, including President Donald Trump, referred to it as a “hate crime.” According to San Diego County sheriff William Gore and as first reported in USA TODAY on April 27, though law enforcement officials were still verifying its authenticity, a “manifesto” of sorts posted online around the time of the attack hinted at the shooter’s possible motivations/reasons for targeting Jews.

In terms of our experience and our feelings about these attacks, it’s difficult to know to what degree we should feel encouraged or dismayed. Concerning the Poway synagogue shooting in particular, that only one person died certainly is worth celebrating. Viewing these matters more globally, however, the verdict is less clear, and with each attack, our ability to process it all is tested.

Undoubtedly, for the communities directly impacted by this sort of violence, the brutality and sense of loss felt is profound. Recent suicides by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL and by the father of one of the children lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary attack speak to the devastating long-term emotional toll gun violence can effect. To say the suffering is a shared one appears wholly accurate.

Even for those of us who haven’t felt the brunt of the carnage wrought by lone wolf attackers and other perpetrators of mass violence, the repetition of the same story may be affecting in its own way. Each tragedy can feel like a punch to the gut, or worse, we may become numb to these events as a function of their apparent frequency. As is often talked about in media circles, we then run the risk of allowing these acts of terrorism to become the “new normal.”

A survivor of a 2018 school shooting in Santa Fe, when asked whether she were surprised about what transpired, replied that she felt “eventually [a shooting] was going to happen” at her school. Her resignation to this idea as a young child, sounding more defeated than optimistic, was perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of this affair. I can only imagine how parents of young children must feel today, sending their children off to school in clear or bulletproof backpacks to participate in active shooter drills. It’s not a set of circumstances I envy.

Witnessing news reports on incidences of hate-fueled violence, as with other crimes, can make them seem more common than they actually are. We respond to the gravity of these situations and not necessarily to the statistical likelihood we will face our own personal encounters with this type of thing. Still, trends in observed data surrounding mass shootings and mass murderers are enough to cause alarm, even though the odds of an attack in our neighborhood may be comparatively slim.

Though published back in 2016, a Frontline PBS report by Katie Worth on the increasing incidence and lethality of lone wolf attacks still carries weight. Citing available research from multiple sources on the subject, Worth explains how five core findings have emerged relating to trends in this kind of violence in the United States. The findings, as she spells them out:

1. Lone wolf attacks are becoming more common. While noting these attacks are still rare and though they are nothing new, Worth details how both the number of attacks and the number of fatalities from these events have gone up in the past decade. In fact, by the date of the Frontline report, the 2010s had already surpassed all other decades in these regards, so one can only imagine where we’re at now.

2. White supremacist ideologies remain the top source of inspiration for lone wolves, though jihadism is also a significant influence. Though the left is not immune to instances of lone wolf attacks, predominantly, it is right-wing extremism which motivates these terrorists. And whether they are white supremacists or jihadis, they are terrorists. Though their exact motivations may be different (the appeal of al-Qaeda and ISIS for some young Westerners is particularly disturbing to national security experts), don’t let the absence of their condemnation and the disproportionate anti-Muslim rhetoric of conservative circles convince you there is some gargantuan divide between them.

3. Lone wolves are different than conventional terrorists. Though terrorists they may be, there are distinctions to be had. Lone wolves are mostly single white males with a criminal record, diverging from those who commit violence as part of a political organization in that they tend to be older, less educated, and significantly more prone to mental illness. Perhaps most surprisingly, lone wolf attackers motivated in part by politics tend to resemble if they aren’t patently indistinguishable from apolitical mass murderers who harbor some personal grievance. The only major difference herein is that mass murderers are more likely to perpetrate violence in a place with which they are familiar, whereas lone wolves are more likely to go somewhere previously unknown.

4. Guns are lone wolves’ weapon of choice. Though once upon a time, lone wolf attacks in America more frequently featured the use of explosives, controls on the purchase of bomb-making materials following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings are believed to be a key factor in reducing the incidence of attacks involving explosive devices. The bad news is that the permissiveness of U.S. gun laws has afforded would-be lone wolves with a staggering array of high-velocity firearms capable of hurting or killing many people in a short span. Say what you want about the Second Amendment, but the statistics are pretty clear on this front.

5. Lone wolves usually tell others about their plans. Whether it’s a cryptic post on social media, a manifesto mailed to media outlets, or some other sign of intent, lone wolves frequently telegraph their acts of violence. Of course, prevention is no easy task and finding useful intelligence to this effect raises concerns about surveillance and possible infringement of people’s civil liberties. As the report also indicates, lone wolf attacks tend to be less effective and deadly than coordinated attacks involving multiple actors. These notions aside, with this type of threat on the rise, there is some comfort in knowing investigators have hope for stopping the next tragedy in that these threats don’t usually arise in complete isolation.


It bears underscoring that not everyone who holds extremist beliefs goes on to shoot up a church or school or what-have-you. As alluded to earlier, lone wolf attacks, though on the rise, are still fairly uncommon. It should also be noted that not everyone professing fealty to an extremist cause necessarily believes in all its tenets. As experts on the subject will aver, what complicates our understanding of lone wolf attacks is that some individuals get involved with extremist movements simply as a means of inciting violence. The backdrop of hate serves as a backdoor to inflicting pain and suffering.

From a law enforcement/criminal justice standpoint, this may facilitate their prosecution. Whatever the reasons for committing these crimes, they are highly visible. In our ever-present search for meaning, however, the obscurity of a perpetrator’s motive can lead to frustration or downright despair. How do we overcome something when its very form is elusive? To say this isn’t easy seems like the understatement of understatements. In addition, our comprehension of these matters is hindered by a lack of available information on the subject, aided (and abetted) by a shift at the federal level away from viewing all forms of domestic terrorism as such. Under President Trump, counterterrorism efforts have focused almost exclusively on Islamic terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has eliminated distinctions between different types of domestic terrorism, conflating white supremacist violence with that of so-called “black identity extremists” in its new category of “racially-motivated violent extremism,” confusing the frequency of cases between the two. This is no accident, a move with political designs written all over them, a concession to Trump’s base and to the changing face of the Republican Party. The president’s supporters by and large do not want to contemplate the rise of white supremacist violence here and abroad. Trump and his administration are only too happy to acquiesce.

This intentional minimization of the threat posed by white supremacists in the U.S. is understandably not lost on the rest of us, especially not members of the opposition party. Earlier this month, a handful of Democratic senators including presidential hopefuls Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris signed and sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr (yes, that AG Barr) and FBI director Christopher Wray admonishing the Department of Justice and the Bureau for failing to adequately acknowledge and address the growing danger posed by white supremacist terrorism.

The senators also charged the DOJ and FBI with taking concrete steps to address this issue, outlining resources to be used in their efforts, and to explain why its classification system for domestic terrorism changed in the first place. Decry this as an “attack” on Trump designed to garner political capital if you will, but these concerns are undoubtedly shared by these legislators’ constituents and scores of other Americans like you and me. Even political opportunists get it right at least occasionally.

Irrespective of examples of mass shootings and other violence, the exigency of curbing white supremacist influence around the world demands action. Since Trump’s inauguration, outward shows of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice have become more mainstream. On one hand, that these dark attitudes and behaviors are becoming more visible means we are better able to combat them with love, understanding, and if necessary, peaceful resistance. On the other hand, to the extent this sense of empowerment would allow those possessing extremist beliefs to expand their reach, such transparency is recognizably problematic.

Seattle-based investigative journalist David Neiwert, in a recent opinion piece, writes about how hate groups are recruiting young people into a “toxic” belief system at an alarming rate. Addressing the increasing frequency of lone wolf attacks like the Chabad of Poway shooting, Neiwert underscores how many of these perpetrators of violence feel they are doing something heroic, fed by conspiracy theories and convinced they have taken the “red pill” and see what is real. Often, social media and other online or phone-accessible forums are the breeding ground for this hate. What’s more, we as a society need to acknowledge the proliferation of dangerous extremism for what it is. From the article:

It’s time for us to stop looking away and start paying attention. We need to acknowledge that our own children are being radicalized online, and that a social media ecosystem predicated on a toxic libertarianism that allows hateful speech to run rampant has been the main platform enabling this phenomenon. Before the arrival of the alt-right, white nationalism was on its elderly deathbed. Now the numbers are unquestionably surging with youthful converts. Judging from pure internet, social media and gaming-hub traffic, we’re talking in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of new young white nationalists being born online right now. We need to recognize that there are policies that are fueling it, as well as irresponsible media entities doing the same — and that these things must cease.

What also must be stressed is that, while we employ the term “lone wolves” to apply to the individuals who carry out these heinous attacks, as Katie Worth’s Frontline PBS report underscores, usually someone is made aware of their intentions. To this point, Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the nonprofit Integrity First for America, writes in her own essay how anti-Semitic lone wolves aren’t really “lone” wolves at all, but rather a group hiding in plain sight.

As Spitalnick tells it, these attackers are “part of an online cabal that perpetuates this violent hate.” Whether it’s through messaging apps, 8chan, the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, or some other forum, lone wolves are often making their intentions to do harm known to others, with their postings reading like a “virtual road map” after the fact. These premeditations are not met with condemnation and revulsion, but acceptance, fame, and idol worship.

Along these lines, Spitalnick shares Neiwert’s sense of urgency about how to combat this disturbing phenomenon. At a minimum, she advocates for recognition of the surge in white supremacist terrorism as a national emergency, as well as investment by the federal government in programs designed to address this crisis rather than cuts and amorphous distinctions between white supremacists and “black identity extremists” which misrepresent and obscure. To boot, platforms like Twitter need to get serious about curbing abuse, harassment, hate, and threats of violence. Looking at you, @jack.

Having Donald Trump promote white nationalist views from his bully pulpit in the White House is bad in it of itself. Even if we remove him from office through electoral or other means, though, the problem won’t be solved. He is not the Night King whose defeat will suddenly mean the destruction of all other bigots around him. Trump’s rise is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and with all these “lone” wolves committing wanton acts of violence, the time for a unified front working to stem the spread of chilling right-wing extremism is now. To borrow another Game of Thrones reference, winter isn’t coming. It’s already here.

On Trump’s Garbage Sanctuary City Plan

President Donald Trump (center) is considering a plan to send undocumented immigrants to sanctuary cities as a form of political retribution. Sens. Tom Cotton (left) and David Perdue (right) are co-sponsors of a bill that seeks to drastically reduce legal immigration to the U.S. Both proposals are garbage steeped in prejudice. (Photo Credit: The White House/Flickr)

A burden. An infestation. Like refuse to be sent away and dumped elsewhere.

These are the kinds of characterizations evoked by the Trump administration’s considered plan to send undocumented immigrants detained at the border to so-called “sanctuary cities” and “sanctuary states” as a means of political retribution. The plan, which is of questionable legality to begin with, obviously has Trump’s backing and the tacit approval of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, but congressional Republicans have been slow if unwilling to throw their support behind such a measure. While not explicitly endorsing such a policy, though, they yet may try to leverage pushback by Democrats into a bipartisan legislative deal. Where there’s political will, there’s a way, eh?

Before we begin dissecting Trump’s proposal, let’s first get one thing straight about “sanctuary” cities and states. The term refers to municipalities and other jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with federal authorities on immigration law so as to reduce fear among immigrant communities and to encourage them to use necessary public resources and to report crimes to law enforcement. To this effect, sanctuary cities may prohibit law enforcement and municipal officials from asking about an individual’s status or may refuse to hold immigrants beyond their release date without a judge’s warrant for committing a crime not related to immigration status.

This distinction, however, does not preclude ICE agents from enforcing immigration law of their own accord. For this reason, some immigrant rights activists favor the term “welcoming city” or “fair and welcoming city” to pertain to these places so as not to imbue immigrants or their advocates with an undue sense of security. Calling your city a “sanctuary city” does not magically seal its boundaries to prevent federal authorities from coming in.

With that point behind us, let’s get to Trump’s idea. Donald Trump has had sanctuary cities in his crosshairs even before becoming president. On the campaign trail, he suggested refusing to send federal funding to these jurisdictions who fail to cooperate on matters of immigration law. In doing so, Trump pointed to highly-publicized cases like Kate Steinle’s murder at the hands of an undocumented immigrant as a partial justification for his policy proposal. Such a directive, as with the current notion of unloading undocumented immigrants on sanctuary cities/Democratic Party strongholds, would’ve been of questionable legality, not to mention it was probably overstated so as to gin up his base. If anything, Trump is more likely to target specific programs like Justice Assistance Grants or the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which President Barack Obama even eyed axing during his tenure.

In this respect, a decision to ship out asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants to sanctuary cities is nothing new for Trump, who has made illegal immigration his chief bugaboo since announcing his bid for the presidency. It is, meanwhile, of questionable utility. By relocating asylum-seekers and economic migrants within the U.S., his administration is making it all the more unlikely these people won’t be deported. Press Secretary Sanders noted this isn’t the president’s first option. As we all know, Trump and his stalwart fans want the wall and they want it yesterday.

Even so, if the goal is deportation and deterrence, this move would seem to fly in the face of that agenda. Reportedly, several mayors of major U.S. cities seemed to embrace the idea, and Central American migrants and their advocates reason this could actually be a godsend for them. In addition, some analysts believe the intended overtaxing of public resources implied by the administration’s plan would be slim to none. Even in smaller municipalities identifying as sanctuary cities or towns theoretically less equipped to deal with a rapid influx of people, undocumented immigrants would probably just move on if the economic resources were to be lacking in a given locale. There would be nothing to compel them to stay in one place or to dissuade them from heading elsewhere.

It’s one thing that the Trump administration’s sanctuary city proposal, as with that of a wall at the Mexican border, would be of dubious effectiveness in controlling illegal immigration and marshalling flows of peoples. For that matter, knowing Trump’s, er, penchant for details, such an undertaking would likely be a logistical nightmare marked by cost overruns, delays, harsh treatment of the people to be transported, and lack of meaningful oversight. As with the wall, however, it’s the cruelty of the messaging behind it that really makes it so disturbing.

Bill Carter, CNN media analyst and author, for one, decries Trump’s “vicious” revenge plan. For Carter, the “depraved,” “grotesque,” “insane,” and “sociopathic” policy proposal (as others have described it) is, on the face of it, “awful.” What makes it especially troublesome is that this event is but one in a sea of additional complications facing this country, a number of them involving Pres. Trump. Carter writes:

By any historical standard, the proposed White House plan to try to inflict some kind of damage on districts hospitable to immigrants by busing masses of detainees to those locations and setting them loose — like an “infestation,” a favorite characterization of this White House about immigrants from Mexico and Central America — would have unleashed a torrent of intense and sustained high-volume coverage. And viewers and readers encountering widespread analysis of a story marked by terms like insanity and sociopathy would recognize something extraordinary had happened.

Instead, the din of incessant political noise can be expected to quickly obliterate any effort to give this latest development what would, in the past, have been its proper due as a screamer of a headline. And context will fly off into the ether. Astonishment will ebb. Media heads will snap back.

For Carter, despite the obvious allusions to be made between Watergate and Trump’s scandals and despite the media’s “indispensable” role in holding the president accountable, when it comes to the mess that is the Trump White House, it’s unclear just how strong the media’s influence still is. The era of Trump is one defined by incomprehensible absurdity that defies attempts to easily define or explain it. As Carter makes the analogy, it’s like fighting wave after wave of zombies. After a while, the sheer volume would wear you down. In Trump’s America, news of a notion to move undocumented immigrants to and fro, treating them like trash, is but one part of an assault on the senses of the news media consumer. And, as Carter tells ominously, it just keeps coming.


Along the lines of what Bill Carter points to as a barrage of newsworthy events, this latest to-do involving Donald Trump and U.S. immigration policy is concerning beyond its immediate circumstances. For one, the half-baked sanctuary cities plan is a distraction from any number of things amiss with the Trump administration, not the least of which is the ongoing drama surrounding the findings of the Mueller investigation.

If anything, Attorney General William Barr, in his presser on the Mueller report and his release of a heavily redacted version of the document, has raised more questions than he has provided concrete answers on whether Trump obstructed justice. His presentation of its contents in a misleading, if not patently false, way has prompted Democratic lawmakers to call for Robert Mueller to testify before Congress on matters relevant to his findings, and in a few cases—notably as recommended by presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren—to begin impeachment proceedings against the president. Barr’s actions smack of cronyism and certainly have done nothing to appease those on the left who have closely followed this investigation.

To boot, news of this plan may be a way to get a less drastic policy directive across and make it seem all the more savory by comparison. Back in 2017, Carlos Maza, video producer at Vox and the creative force behind the “Strikethrough” series, which examines manifestations of the media in the Trump era, published a seven-minute video piece about Trump’s antics in the context of what is known as the Overton window, or the range of acceptability for an idea in public political discourse. As Maza explains in accordance with the theory, the easiest way to move that window is to propose an “unthinkable” idea, even if it is rejected, as it will make more “radical” or “ridiculous” ideas seem relatively “normal.”

As this concept relates to Trump, behavior that would’ve shocked us under previous presidents has become that much more commonplace. We regularly expect to be bullshitted, as Maza so colorfully puts it. A side effect of this reality, though, is that media outlets have stocked their panels with anti-Trump conservatives to argue against pro-Trump personalities, creating a new middle ground for the conversation. As a result, our expectations get lower. Republicans are no longer concerned with governing well, but merely with not being Trump. The proverbial bar is so low it’s on the ground.

Maza points to the egregious Republican tax bill as an example of this. The Senate version of the bill was rushed through a vote with lawmakers barely having read it. Meanwhile, Pres. Trump was busy tweeting about Michael Flynn. Suddenly, with Trump pushing his brand of crazy, the GOP’s chicanery was not the embarrassment it should’ve been but rather a win from which Trump’s ranting served to distract. The president provided political cover for his party mates helping to promote his regressive domestic agenda.

Maza’s report came out prior to the Democratic Party regaining control of the House after the midterms, so the political climate has changed appreciably since that time. Nevertheless, that’s unlikely to stop Republicans from trying to advance legislation impacting immigration. Earlier this month, Sens. David Perdue, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton reintroduced the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or RAISE Act, aimed at reducing legal immigration to the United States by as much as 50%.

Billed as a defense of American workers, it is a proposal supported by White House adviser Stephen Miller—and that alone should give one pause. The claim that “they’re taking our jobs” has been argued for years without much credible evidence to support it. In addition, the bill’s given priority to highly-skilled workers despite an ever-present need for “skilled” and “unskilled” labor is recognizable as a backdoor to reduce the influx of immigrants altogether. The RAISE Act, ostensibly a piece of legislation geared toward benefiting the U.S. economy, appears to be plagued by an misunderstanding of the immigration situation in this country, or worse, intentionally skews a debate informed by racial prejudices. Next to Trump’s absurd sanctuary cities plan, however, it not only seems more logical, but more responsible. The available evidence suggests otherwise.

Amid the chaos of the Trump administration, a notion to send migrants and asylum-seekers to sanctuary cities as political retribution is just one in a series of confounding happenings. But even if doesn’t come to pass, the message it sends is not to be minimized. It is one of cruel dehumanization of some of the most vulnerable residents here in America, and it, unlike them, is garbage.

You Should Think Twice before Making That Hitler Analogy

In defending nationalism, Candace Owens cited Adolf Hitler’s globalist intentions as his major flaw. In doing so, she casually forgot to mention, you know, that whole attempted genocide of the Jewish people thing. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nowadays, it’s hard to know what political norms have a function or are otherwise subject to being summarily eschewed. In the era of President Donald J. Trump, it would seem all bets, as they say, are off. One set of guiding principles that’s still fairly sacrosanct, meanwhile, is what I call the Hitler Rules. As I would phrase them, they are as follows:

  1. Don’t talk about Adolf Hitler in a remotely positive light or quote him without a very good reason for doing so.
  2. If you find yourself extolling Hitler’s virtues or publicly citing Mein Kampf, stop immediately and apologize profusely.
  3. Dear God, why are you still talking about Hitler?

If you get to Principle #1, you messed up. If you get to Principle #3, you really messed up. If any of this doesn’t make sense, go watch the History Channel or visit the Holocaust Museum or open up a book (yes, an actual physical book) about World War II. There’s way too much to cover in the span of one blog post.

And yet, people like Candace Owens evidently are unapologetic about their references to a man who advocated for the ethnic cleansing of an entire people. Back in February, the conservative activist Owens spoke at the London launch of right-wing organization Turning Point USA, a student-oriented group focused on changing the narrative that the liberal left has a “monopoly” over young people. When asked by an audience member how those who champion nationalist causes can, well, not be called “nationalists,” Owens had this to say:

I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word “nationalism.” I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want. […] Whenever we say nationalism, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler.

He was a national socialist. But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize. He wanted everybody to be German, everybody to be speaking German. Everybody to look a different way. To me, that’s not nationalism. In thinking about how we could go bad down the line, I don’t really have an issue with nationalism. I really don’t.

So, wait: Hitler wasn’t bad until he took his act on the road? What about the whole, you know, attempted extermination of the Jews thing? However you slice it, it seems pretty bad. Also puzzling is Owens’s definition of “nationalism.” It’s one thing for members of a state to embrace certain cultural elements and values. It’s quite another to insist people all act, look, and speak a certain way as part of a racist or xenophobic agenda. Oxford Dictionaries defines nationalism as “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” Including but not limited to starting a world freaking war and killing millions of people in accordance with some perverted ideal of racial purity. Yes, Ms. Owens, that would make Hitler a nationalist.

In the ensuing backlash, Owens insisted she was taken out of context, which conservatives often like to claim when being held accountable for dumb shit they say. In an ex post facto explanatory video uploaded to Twitter, Owens derided Buzzfeed and its report that helped draw attention to her remarks as a “scum-of-the-earth” publication. She also doubled down on her assertion that wanting to protect the “sovereignty” of one’s nation from outside “threats” shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing, defending the likes of Pres. Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, as well as standing by her interpretation of “nationalism” to exclude Hitler on the basis he didn’t put Germany first because he killed German Jews. You could’ve at least mentioned that the first time around, Ms. Owens.

Owens put a cap on her rebuttal by pointing to the “insanity” of leftist journalists for highlighting her comments about Hitler. Here’s the thing, though, Ms. Owens: no one forced you to bring up Hitler. You made the initial comment that people (which people, anyway?) think of the Führer when they think of nationalism. You could’ve stopped there. At any rate, you should’ve denounced his hate and genocidal violence right then and there in your initial answer. But you didn’t. At best, your explanation was a lazy one. At worst, it intentionally left out the mass murder of European Jews as a matter of German domestic and foreign policy. Don’t blame liberal journos for your deficiency. Even given full context, your lack of clarity merits admonishment.

When not explicitly issuing bad takes on Adolf Hitler, others in recent memory have questionably quoted his inflammatory language as a means of attacking the other side. A few weeks ago, Republican Mo Brooks invoked Mein Kampf as a way of railing against Democrats and the Mueller investigation. Citing Hitler’s words directly, he assailed Dems for promoting “big lie propaganda.” Evidently, Rep. Brooks tried to make the connection that because some Democrats identify as socialists and because the Nazis identified as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Democratic Party is akin to the Nazi Party. Um, what?

First of all, Rep. Brooks, Hitler and the Nazis were fascists. Their “national socialism” was a nationalist recontextualization of the term socialism that emphasized hierarchical structures (as opposed to universal equality) and disdained representative democracy. As with the Nazis’ use of the swastika and their celebration of an Aryan “master race,” their brand of “socialism” was a perversion of the kind adhered to by the likes of the Marxists.

Second of all, even if the point you were trying to make was a sound one
—which it was not—this is Mein freaking Kampf we’re talking about here. We can do without Hitler’s verbiage. Besides, while we’re discussing whether people are being taken out of context, Hitler’s concept of a “big lie” refers to the notion of a Jewish conspiracy to blame Germany’s defeat in World War I on German general Erich Ludendorff. Its function was to foment anti-Semitism, effectively creating a scapegoat in the Jewish people. So what—you’re alleging the president is as persecuted as the Jews? Pardon me if I elect not to weep for a man of Trump’s purported wealth, a straight white male, no less.

In both Owens’s and Brooks’s cases, these mentions of Hitler were unsolicited on the part of those observing. For Owens, it was a discussion of the leader of the Nazi Party and nationalism that sounded like a defense more than anything and that was wrongheaded either way. For Brooks, it was a ham-handed comparison between the Democratic Party and the Nazis, one that unnecessarily and disingenuously cited Mein Kampf and therefore could’ve been replaced by the writings of pretty much any other public figure such that it would’ve made for an improvement. Heck, you could’ve thrown a random Post Malone lyric out there. I’m not sure what the relevance would have been, mind you, but at least it wouldn’t have come from Hitler-Comma-Adolf. Both of these individuals flagrantly violated the Hitler Rules—and no amount of context can take them off the hook for that.


Conjuring images of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany willy-nilly is, for most rational people not beholden to a regressive conservative agenda, ill-advised. Of course, if you’re a member of a far-right political organization or a neo-Nazi group looking to recruit new members, naked affection for Hitler’s agenda is likely welcome. With today’s Republican Party under Donald Trump, the separation between a party that implicitly excludes people on racist and classist principles and one that openly campaigns on destruction of the other is ever narrowing.

Then again, some people may just be invoking a different fascist leader. Sen. John Cornyn made news in February when he posted to his Twitter account a quote, without context, by Benito Mussolini. As with Mo Brooks, this was a dig at self-professed democratic socialists. Never mind that Mussolini, like Hitler, was a fascist who, despite earlier socialist leanings, came to denounce the Italian Socialist Party as he embraced a more nationalist outlook and eventually rose to dictatorial heights. In other words, if your aim as Sen. Cornyn is to demean socialism by promoting fascism or otherwise directly quoting a mass murderer and despot, your priorities may need realignment.

We might be remiss if we didn’t consider that conservatives are not the only ones who have made allusions to Hitler in their comparisons. Candace Owens noted in her violation of the Hitler Rules how nationalism, at least in the U.S., gets conflated with Germany’s one-time Nazi leader. As the Promulgator-in-Chief of “America First” nationalism, Trump is therefore the Hitler figure in this analogy.

This is where Trump’s defenders customarily begin to lose their shit and/or exhibit their performative umbrage over the supposed likeness. How dare liberals talk bad about our beloved president! He’s a great man and certainly no Adolf Hitler! In an ironic twist, they throw a hissy fit and talk about something they allege the left suffers from in “Trump derangement syndrome.” Which, not for nothing, is a terrible name. For one, it’s cumbersome. Second of all, it doesn’t make awfully clear which party is the deranged one. Just as easily, I could infer that Trump is the one who suffers from his own distinctive brand of insanity. From a marketing perspective, it doesn’t “pop.”

Literally speaking, Trump isn’t Hitler. He hasn’t led the Axis Powers on a mission of world conquest, nor has he advocated for the full-scale deletion of an entire race. (Not yet, at least.) Nevertheless, elements of his administration’s policy and Trump’s rhetoric are worrisome and reminiscent of Hitler’s stewardship of Nazi Germany.

Maiken Umbach, professor of modern history at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, wrote a piece back in 2016 prior to the election asking what the similarities between Hitler and Trump are. It’s not just the denigration of minority groups. Sadly, Trump is not the only bad actor in this regard worldwide; we need look no further than Marine Le Pen’s candidacy for the top office in France or the success of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum vote for other modern cohorts. Umbach would also echo the concern that Trump is not proposing a “final solution” to get rid of Mexicans and other immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. Although by now, the separation of families at the border and putting them in glorified cages, hearkening back to how Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps during World War II, doesn’t exactly bolster Trump’s credibility on this front.

These thoughts aside, where Umbach and others see parallels between Trump and Hitler is in the promotion of domestic and foreign policy short on specifics and long on the creation of a charismatic leader who claims he alone can decisively move the country forward and in a way that breaks with established corruption. She closes her article with these considerations:

Like Hitler, Trump is capitalising on a longing for charismatic leadership, to which even highly developed Western democracies seem very susceptible when democratic structures fail to deliver all the desired outcomes. No Western democracy currently faces problems on the scale of those Germany grappled with before 1933. And yet, there is a very real sense amongst a large part of the population that they have not been on the “winning side” for a long time.

The gap between rich and poor is getting wider, and in the process, the classical attributes of political leadership – education, expertise, eloquent speeches – have come to be seen not as problem-solving strategies, but as the identity markers of a social elite who are looking after their own interests only.

Even where new policies on healthcare, education, or job creation achieve their goals, they are not popular, because they are tinged with that smell of elitism that makes many ordinary people not feel valued by the political classes. Trump has not been the first demagogue to capitalise on such sentiments, and he will not be the last. If elected, we will not see a resurgence of National Socialism. Trump is, nevertheless, a symptom of a fundamental problem with our democratic system, which we seem utterly unable to fix.

As it must be stressed, President Donald Trump is merely an outgrowth of a dysfunctional political system and an embodiment of prejudices that have existed long before his rise to power. In Umbach’s parlance, he is not the first and won’t be the last. Just the same, the attitudes and behaviors he encourages should not be altogether dismissed, nor should we ignore the conditions that led to Trump’s upset electoral victory. Feelings of anger, fear, and hate have come to be associated with Trump’s base. That the Hitler comparison even appears credible at points suggests this is not simple hyperbole or “derangement.” And it’s not just American leftists throwing out the analogy either. When Holocaust survivors tell you there is room for comparison, you tend to listen.

Whatever side of the political fence you’re on, name-dropping Adolf Hitler is a move to which one should give due weight before acting on it. The above examples coming from the right are rather egregious instances of individuals attempting to defend their personal embrace of nationalism or attack their political rivals according to a faulty pretext. The left is not altogether blameless in this regard, however, and must be judicious in its connections to Nazism lest its card-carrying members lose credibility amid the withering criticism of right-wing trolls.

If nothing else, though, the concession should be easy to make that Hitler wasn’t a “good” leader. A few weeks back, in my home state, a high school athletic director tried to make the case that Hitler was a good leader with “bad moral character and intentions.” It may seem like semantics, but beyond framing Hitler as an effective leader who led his country down a dark and ruinous path, there should be no justification for calling him a good leader. That is, you can’t neatly separate his leadership style from the deleterious results, presuming you think it effective in the first place.

The same might be said for Trump and an assessment of his presidency as a whole. Judging by the turmoil in his administration and the Cabinet as well as the damage he has done to our standing in the world by moving America deliberately backwards, Trump’s presidency has been an utter disaster. Never mind what he and his backers might aver. The ends, in this case, by no means justify the means, and by this token, Trump is no good leader either.

We can’t forget the lessons World War II and Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy have taught us. The context in which we revisit these lessons, on the other hand, matters. Candace Owens and Mo Brooks in particular should heed this advice or risk suffering the consequences.

The Artist, the Art, and the People in Between

Michael Jackson was a gifted entertainer and by many accounts a loving person. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he is innocent and it doesn’t justify his fans’ harsh treatment of his accusers. (Photo Credit: Zoran Veselinovic/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Michael Jackson was a phenomenally talented individual and entertainer. He also may well have been a pedophile who abused multiple children entrusted to his care. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive, and our complicated relationship with the artist and his art is illustrative of our larger struggle with how to regard the accused, their accusers, and their past creations in the #MeToo era.

Concerns about Jackson’s troubled legacy related to his long-suspected indiscretions have returned with renewed vigor in the wake of the airing of the documentary Leaving Neverland. The four-hour film, which prominently features Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two of Jackson’s accusers, is by many accounts a must-see.

As with any creative work, the movie’s merits may certainly be debated. Some critics have also observed the documentary, in its spotlight on the accusers, is not neutral—though it’s realistically difficult for the people involved with making the film not to take a stand on a matter of such import. Whatever you think of the veracity of the accusers’ accounts, the subject of child abuse and the effect it has on families is a discussion worth having, and to the extent Leaving Neverland can add to this discussion, this suggests its existence has value.

The subsequent backlash has been notable, at any rate. Some radio stations have removed Michael Jackson’s catalog from their programming. Other artists/companies/productions sampling or performing his songs have canceled upcoming projects invoking his image or have likewise moved to retroactively remove his likeness and his music. Perhaps fitting for this era, the backlash itself has seen a backlash, particularly from Jackson’s estate and his avid fans. The former filed a $100 million defamation lawsuit against HBO. Protestors came out in full force outside the office of British television company Channel 4 and at the Sundance Film Festival for showing the movie. To put it mildly, Leaving Neverland has caused a stir.

Most of us are not as close to the events of the documentary or Jackson’s music to have such strong feelings as his accusers, his family and friends, or his loyal supporters. Still, it’s not like the rest of us aren’t familiar with the man and his body of work. After all, they didn’t call him “the King of Pop” for nothing. At his peak popularity, Jackson possessed the kind of fame most of today’s entertainers could only dream of. The allusion to him being pop royalty was especially apt. His stardom rivaled the love and affection the queen of England might receive. Heck, he met with presidents and foreign dignitaries. If not quite larger than life, “MJ” was pretty gosh darn huge nonetheless.

Accordingly, we all possess some degree of connection to Jackson and his music. The question then becomes: how do we regard the artist and his art? For many people, it’s an uncomfortable situation marked by cognitive dissonance. “I like his music. People tell me he’s a pedophile. This upsets me. How do I reconcile these disparate feelings?” I paint this picture as if it’s a wholly conscious decision on our parts, though I am cognizant of the notion it is not. We use coping mechanisms to assuage ourselves of the discordant emotions and ideations within our minds. It’s up to us as individuals to process and sort through how we experience it all.

So, to listen or not to listen? If you ask Kate Maltby, broadcaster, columnist, and theater critic in the UK, the answer—at least for her—is yes. For her part, Maltby believes Robson and Safechuck. Among her reasons is the idea that these accusers would be loath to invite the wrath of the Jackson estate and his fans except for the need to tell the truth. Not to mention their lawsuits against the estate have since been dismissed on effective technicalities or statutes of limitation. If this were a ruse for the sake of money or fame, it wouldn’t appear to serve those ends very well.

Assuming we do believe these men, Maltby feels we are doing ourselves a disservice by negating the greatness of Jackson’s hits alongside adding a new context to his life’s saga. In making this assertion, she is making a key distinction between a figure who has passed on and can’t make any more money off of his creative works and those of disgraced living entertainers who are abusers and whose mere presence would stunt the development of other potential collaborators. Jackson’s family didn’t perpetrate these acts. Why should they suffer as a result?

Ultimately, for Maltby, the recognition that Michael Jackson was a musical “genius” and an active worker for the benefit of charities but also a flawed human being is essential, lest we try to absolve other gifted individuals because of their ability in the future. She directs this argument at Jackson’s “superfans,” specifically the kinds that “wonder why people don’t come out earlier with accusations of abuse, then attack those who do.” She finishes her op-ed on this subject with these thoughts:

Appreciating Jackson’s music should help us see him, and humanity, as susceptible to complex tragedy. Jackson’s own father has been called “one of the most monstrous fathers in pop” — and we know how many children of abuse go on to abuse others in turn. Jackson’s superfans would do well to reflect on how quick they are to believe Jackson’s own tales of childhood abuse — whippings with electric cords and belt buckles — and how quick to disbelieve his accusers.

Jackson’s critics should be open-minded enough to recognize that his impact on our musical landscape can’t be reversed. But his defenders should be open-minded enough to accept he may still have done terrible things. The rest of us should keep playing those tracks — and test how easy it is to lose ourselves in the music.

Though it may be small consolation to some to hear, approaching Jackson’s identity as a peerless talent with a dark side isn’t easy for anyone. Perhaps this is simply the nature of these things. As hard as it is to assign blame or prove guilt in cases of sexual abuse, it’s also difficult to reckon with the emotional and psychological aftermath of these acts in their own way. Child abuse has pervasive negative effects on our psyches and these effects are only magnified in the case of an alleged abuser with the profile of “the King of Pop.” Our collective discomfort only hints at the destructive force of this sort of violence and the sense of shame survivors can feel.


Long before Leaving Neverland, Dave Chappelle invoked Michael Jackson’s trials in a sketch for his hit eponymous comedy show. The premise is that Chappelle is a potential juror in various courtroom proceedings of high-profile black celebrities, a premise of which the genesis could be found in his conversations with one of the show’s writers about the notion that he (Chappelle) almost never believes these stars are guilty. Chappelle’s character goes to great lengths to absolve Jackson of any culpability, downplaying accounts of his accusers describing Jackson’s genitalia as well as Jackson’s own admissions that he slept in the same bed as children who stayed at his Neverland ranch. He also reasons Jackson can’t be guilty because “the man made Thriller.”

Of course, this is comedy and Chappelle’s juror, when asked by the prosecutor if he’d let his children sleep in the same bed, responds with a disgusted “F**k no!” Still, this sketch arguably hasn’t aged very well. Regardless of the character’s sincerity, these are real arguments used against survivors of sexual abuse. Why didn’t they come forward sooner? What’s in it for them? Are they doing it for the money? For the attention? Where’s the evidence?

In Jackson’s case, while not the only ones to cast aspersions on Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s accounts, those “superfans” Kate Maltby describes take it to an extreme. Mike Pesca, writing for Slate, is among those who say Jackson’s steadfast defenders “sound like conspiracy theorists” way past impartiality more so than discerning consumers of news and entertainment media. Pesca likens these fanatics to so-called 9/11 “truthers” who aver that this tragedy was an inside job. He points out that he doesn’t know “for certain” that Jackson is an abuser, but that a preponderance of evidence suggests he is and that Robson and Safechuck are telling the truth.

That hasn’t resonated with Jackson’s defenders, however. As Pesca characterizes their defenses of their beloved pop idol, there are three major points by which his accusers can be refuted: 1) there were plenty of boys Jackson didn’t molest, 2) Robson testified on Jackson’s behalf back in the 2004-2005 trial against him, and 3) they are after Jackson’s money.

Let’s start with #3, which we’ve already addressed in part with discussion of the fact Robson’s and Safechuck’s lawsuits against the Jackson estate have been thrown out. We may be eager to discount the accusers as motivated by money, but what about the Jackson’s estate’s lawyers? What about the relatives who, in defending Michael, neglect to mention that their public profiles and musical relevance are intimately connected with his image? If Robson and Safechuck are fair game, certainly, those with a material interest in Michael Jackson’s marketability making public statements on his behalf are too.

As for the other proverbial prongs in the trident that is Jackson’s defense, on the first count—that Jackson didn’t molest many children—this doesn’t prove he couldn’t have violated other young people. The same kind of defense was used by Brett Kavanaugh’s apologizers after multiple accusations of sexual impropriety not long ago. If it seemed suspicious then, it should seem equally specious now if not more so given the irregularity of Jackson’s behavior during the period in question. On #2? Very simply, Robson could’ve been lying then and is telling the truth now, and not the other way around.

For Pesca, that Jackson’s staunchest defenders take to ramblings on Medium and YouTube doesn’t damn them absolutely, but it doesn’t speak highly of them either. Even when those who stand by Jackson possess a veneer of greater respectability—in name-checking music journalist Joe Vogel, Pesca confesses he doesn’t possess a high regard for Forbes—they still might be reliant on character references who themselves may be blind to or uncapable of entertaining the thought that Jackson molested children.

Another defense Pesca underscores is that Jackson was black and his accusers are white, reminiscent of Dave Chappelle’s hyperbolic characterization. Vogel awkwardly tries to make this case too, citing—of all things—To Kill a Mockingbird. Mr. Vogel, ahem, you are no Harper Lee. Ditto for will.i.am, who threw out the idea that the backlash against Jackson is a “smear campaign” and that black artists are targeted disproportionately over white artists.

Even if will.i.am—I hate that I have to keep writing his name this way—has a point about the inherent hypocrisy in the ability of corporations and certain other individuals to reclaim their standing after heinous acts, the perceived lack of empathy here undermines the strength of his argument. Why is it so much easier to believe that Jackson is innocent and that his accusers are opportunists than the reverse? Or espouse the belief that their mothers were terrible parents and say nothing of Jackson’s alleged misdeeds? Because, as Chappelle joked, he made Thriller? Should it matter if the accused is, as the song goes, black or white?

As with sorting out our feelings on these matters, answering these questions isn’t easy either. Despite the controversy related to Leaving Neverland and radio station bans, streams of Michael Jackson’s music increased following the documentary’s premiere. Maybe listeners are simply able to separate the art from the artist. Maybe it’s a show of defiance from the fans who have never lost faith. For those of us in between and victims of physical and sexual abuse everywhere, the reasons may change but the song remains the same.