OK, Socialism Is “the Devil,” but What About Capitalism?

Is a $2,000 pizza made with 24K gold, caviar, foie gras, and Stilton cheese inherently immoral? No, but it may not be worth it taste-wise, and moreover, the inequalities created by capitalism serve to make extravagant purchases like this seem wrong in deference to all the things you could buy instead with that money. (Photo Credit: Industry Kitchen)

WARNING: For those with delicate political and economic sensibilities, this piece will make repeated references to a particular term. A dirty word in certain circles, to be sure. In fact, some may be unable to speak it lest they devolve into paroxysms of uncontrollable shouting and frothing at the mouth. He doesn’t mean what I think he means, you shudder. Oh, but I do, intrepid reader. You guessed it: that word. The “S word.”

Socialism. (Boo! Hiss!)

As we approach Election Day 2020, attacks from the right have been trying to frame any and all serious Democratic contenders as “socialists,” railing against the purported evils of suggested policy shifts such as Medicare for All, free tuition at public colleges and universities, the Green New Deal, and other tenets of a progressive or liberal agenda. Under this haphazard framework, legitimate elements resembling facets of socialist societies can and do get conflated with all sorts of things right-leaning individuals don’t like.

Political correctness? Socialism. The LGBTQ “agenda?” Socialism. Migrants crossing our southern border? Socialism. Democrats “coming for your guns?” Socialism. Electric cars? Socialism. Liberal indoctrination of our youth? Socialism. The sissification of manly men? You better believe your patootie it’s socialism!

Thrown around recklessly in this manner, socialism also gets confused with other economic and political systems people either don’t grasp or haven’t bothered to try to understand. In the minds of some, socialism, a theory of organization which favors social ownership of the means of production and of working to satisfy human needs, is synonymous with communism, which can be seen as the next step after socialism in a post-capitalist society, and which advocates for doing away with notions of class, money, occupational specificity, and private ownership.

As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I’ve heard the question numerous times, “Isn’t he a c-c-communist?” As if the person asking were a character out of Scooby Doo or something, staring down a ghost. No, he’s not. As other democratic socialists believe, he feels both the U.S. economy and society should be run democratically to meet the greatest public need and not just for the benefit of a privileged few. Especially when understood next to communism, some might even believe his proposed reforms don’t go far enough.

Let’s not get bogged down in discussion of specific political candidates, though. The larger point is that talk of socialism, in the hands of bad-faith actors and critics, becomes a weapon used to discredit anyone and anything resembling a leftist or espousing leftist ideologies. In this sense, socialism is understood as both logically and morally inferior to capitalism. Ah, yes, capitalism. The free market. A model of economic efficiency free from the tyranny of government control. A bastion of Western rectitude and a symbol of the industry of a proud country like the U.S. of A. Surely, the right’s embrace of unfettered capitalism puts it on the right side of history. After all, you don’t want America becoming Venezuela, do you?

Put aside any notions of Venezuela possessing unique features which have led to its economic disarray (e.g. an overreliance on oil as a source of revenue) as well as doubts about whether socialism as it is designed has actually been employed there by the likes of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro (it hasn’t), though. If we are to invoke capitalism as a defense of why socialist functions can’t or shouldn’t exist in America, shouldn’t we be able to explain with a straight face why it is fundamentally better? To this effect, shouldn’t we all be able to speak to the wonders capitalism has done for all of our lives?

In a two-part video essay titled “What’s Wrong with Capitalism” for her channel ContraPoints, Natalie Wynn, ex-philosopher and YouTuber with a mind for social justice (and a great follow on YouTube and Twitter, by the by), addresses some of the potential shortcomings of a capitalist society like ours.

Beginning with a bit of context about acute feelings that something is wrong with our world as expressed by middle-class white males facing a changing population at home, an expanding global marketplace/exchange of ideas, and a commensurate loss of privilege, Wynn avers that while this sense of “getting screwed” is accurate, others are getting screwed worse. In this regard, and with respect to vague attempts to scapegoat other disenfranchised groups, the problem is not “the Jews,” nor is it feminism, the ghost of Karl Marx, people of color, trans people, vegans, or anyone else who might be labeled a “cuck,” a “snowflake,” etc. The problem is capitalism.

So, what’s wrong with capitalism? Wynn makes these salient points in service of her arguments:

Alienated labor: Or as Wynn simplifies it, “shitty jobs.” Because many workers have no stake in the profitability of the company they serve and are merely working to make money, ensure a path to other benefits, and/or not get passed over for a promotion or fired, there’s no sense of intrinsic reward from their efforts or a sense of camaraderie because they are being pitted against one another.

Depending on the situation, they might also be forced to engage in company retreats and other “team building” exercises or they might not even be identified as employees at all (i.e. independent contractors, who are liable for much of their own expenses and not privy to the same benefits). The pretense makes it that much worse.

Advertising: As Wynn defines it, the purpose of advertising is “to manufacture desires, which brands across the world spend nearly five hundred billion dollars a year doing.” In theory, if we are rational beings capable of making rational decisions in our best interest, as is an assumption of capitalism, we shouldn’t require such illogical pairings of, say, attractive women and luxury vehicles, or celebrities and expensive watches. That’s because the point of advertising in a capitalist system is not to satisfy existing needs, but to endlessly create new “needs,” leaving those original very real needs dangerously unfulfilled.

Inequality: Referencing BuzzFeed’s web series Worth It, in which Steven Lim and Andrew Ilnyckyj try more reasonably priced items against a vastly pricier counterpart to assess whether the high-end option is, as the name indicates, “worth it,” and putting a spotlight on Season 2, Episode 5, in which Steven and Andrew compare a $2.75 slice of pizza to a $2,000 24K-gold-covered pizza from Industry Kitchen comprised of various expensive items, Wynn highlights how by simply consuming the decadent choice, because they judge it to be inferior, this suddenly begins to weigh on their conscience. They feel, on some level, guilty for having been a part of consuming something of which the cost arguably could’ve been better used elsewhere.

As Wynn explains, morality has little to no bearing on this situation. Ilnyckyj and Lim are not bad people for eating a high-falutin’ pizza, nor are the makers of the pizza wrong for creating such a pricy entrée. It is, instead, the fault of capitalism that it fuels and makes so evident the divides in income and wealth inequality which promote feelings of guilt when the alternatives are juxtaposed together. Or, to phrase this in a concise philosophical argument:

Capitalism as we know it is a defective economic system, because, although it’s good at creating large amounts of wealth in an incredibly efficient way, it distributes that wealth in an incredibly inefficient way, where efficiency is understood not as the capacity to maximize total wealth but as the capacity to maximize human happiness.

This failure is therefore not necessarily a function of some dysfunction or inability on the part of those most disenfranchised by capitalism’s elaboration, but rather a systemic flaw.

Money buys happiness…but only to an extent

Within the American economic system, more income yields more happiness, presumably because individuals/their families have enough money to meet their basic needs and can live more comfortably. At somewhere between $65,000 to $95,000 a year, however, the reported happiness benefit plateaus.

According to this interpretation of socioeconomic data, then, the stark difference between the mean income (about $72,000, within the plateau zone) and the national median ($59,000, below the plateau zone) is vaguely startling, at least as far as the goal of maximizing happiness through the economy goes. Moreover, the top 1% of American earners make more than $389,000, well beyond the upper limits of the plateau zone. What good does that serve them or us?

To Wynn, what’s particularly galling for lower-income families is not just that they have trouble making ends meet or have to worry about money/what to sacrifice, it’s that they have to do so knowing full well there are other Americans who are obscenely rich. Their eventual anger, which she likens to the kind felt at the peak of the French Revolution, would therefore be justifiable.

This analysis comes from one person, who while being humorously self-deprecating about her acumen, is yet an ex-academic who describes herself as a “dumb-dumb” who “likes shiny things.” This is to say that while she did her research and presented her viewpoints in a very entertaining way, she is not an expert in this subject matter. Yet armed with a group of economists who specialize in researching and addressing widening equality, who knows what else we could throw alongside Wynn’s content. 40 minutes? Maybe 400 minutes is more appropriate given the potential complexity of this topic.

Capitalism, you’re getting off easy here.


For those of us sold on the perils of capitalism either as a result of Natalie Wynn et al.‘s discourse on the subject or based on our own feelings of dissatisfaction and alienation within a capitalist society, it is clear what the problems are, but not necessarily how we move past them. As Wynn indicates, the conditions for socialism to take root in the United States would require a failure of the current system. At the very least, that will take time.

In the interim, Wynn largely demurs on the actions she prescribes for her viewers to take to comic effect, suggesting among other things that we eat more vegetables, try not to be manipulated into waging war against other downtrodden people, tweet radically, vote Labour, and not cede more power to “the absolute worst dingbats our society has to offer.” Ultimately, she yields to the call to arms of Tabby, a cat-woman radical and one of her videos’ list of personas (fur-sonas?), who seeks to smash her way to revolution. Catgirls of the world unite! The idea has appeal, if for no other reason than the patent absurdity of it all.

I would submit that amid taking actions to benefit the planet and the world’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free, we should also keep conservations going about the long-term viability of our society as is and how well each of us are doing (or aren’t) within the confines of a capitalist framework. In my relatively short life span, I have witnessed a global financial crisis and the ensuing recession. Despite our apparent current economic fortune, there’s reason to fear we could be headed there again. An ongoing trade war with China. Widespread accusations of currency manipulation of allies and rivals alike. A slowdown in world trade across continents. And we still haven’t felt the full force of the GOP tax cuts or realized their implications. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to fear another recession, and Donald Trump’s White House is a key player in all of this.

Relatedly, and with a nod to Trump loyalists who have stuck by him amid the disarray, I urge his supporters and others sympathetic to his cause to think about, beyond his positions on immigration and other social issues, just how much they’re getting as a function of his presidency. You may have faith in him despite misgivings about his bully mentality, his fascist leanings, his misogyny, racism, transphobia, and xenophobia. Hell, you may actually like these things about him, and if you made it this far, thanks for reading. I’m not sure why you did, but thanks.

When it comes down to it, however, if you and your bottom line are what primarily concern you, keep thinking about what President Trump and the GOP are or aren’t doing for you. You probably are already watching the markets. But keep the tax cuts in mind and how you have benefited, if at all. Or how trade wars, which Trump boldly proclaimed are easy to win, may actually be hurting you when you’re picking up the tab. Or why, despite all the promises you’d be “winning,” things feel pretty much the same as before, if not worse. Barack Obama’s shift in the Oval Office is over, and when Republicans start coming for your social safety net to try to make up for their shitty policy goals, you won’t be able to blame him for it. Not terribly sincerely, in any event.

And by all means, amidst the doom and gloom depicted by conservatives and centrists alike about socialism, consider whether it is vitally important that we live in a world of unfettered capitalism. An end to capitalism wouldn’t mean an end to your ability to enjoy stuff as you might in our present materialistic society. It would, meanwhile, signify a shift away from a system that prizes profit over people and seeks to make money rather than satisfying human needs and happiness. Whether by regulating capitalism more heavily or by transitioning away from it, that seems like an end result worth striving for.

Do We Really Need Al Franken?

Al Franken’s alleged groping of several women may not be the same level of purported offense as that of Donald Trump or Roy Moore. That doesn’t mean we can’t hold him to a minimum standard of conduct, however, and it certainly doesn’t mean we “need him back” in any capacity. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/CC BY-SA 4.0)

As concerns the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, perhaps no figure encapsulates its potential divisiveness and difficult contemplations like Al Franken.

It’s been over a year-and-a-half since Franken resigned from his post as U.S. Senator from the state of Minnesota, but his case is one that media figures and political junkies alike feel the need to relitigate. Jane Mayer’s recent essay for The New Yorker is the latest high-profile entry in people’s meditations on whether he should’ve resigned.

Mayer considers a lot of angles in her examination of this subject matter: the precipitousness of his fall from grace after once being considered a possible challenger to Donald Trump in 2020, the regret he and numerous former colleagues feel, contrasts with Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s records, the evolution of accuser Leeann Tweeden’s account of sexual misconduct, the nature of U.S.O. shows like the one Franken did with Tweeden and the content of the skit prompting her accusations, character witness accounts on his behalf, proposed logical faults taken with Tweeden’s characterizations of the incident and ruminations on her credibility, FOX News personalities’ personal ax to grind with Franken, that allegations against Roy Moore were fresh in the minds of many, Franken’s physical awkwardness, allegations from other accusers, concerns about lack of due process, the role Kirsten Gillibrand and other Democratic colleagues played in calling for his resignation, the notion that not all accounts of abuse are made equal. In this regard, Mayer’s piece seems reasonably well considered.

This effort to reclaim Franken’s image is arguably not without its problems, however. On one hand, Tweeden’s failure or refusal to acknowledge the context in which the U.S.O. skit was performed and its content (there is a scene of a breast exam in the skit, to which the infamous photo of Franken and Tweeden presumably refers) are curious omissions. Acknowledging this wouldn’t make her accusations any less valid.

On the other hand, we might rightly object at various points in Mayer’s analysis. For one, comparisons to Biden and Trump are whataboutism, pure and simple. We’re talking about Franken here. Their supposed misdeeds are irrelevant to the deliberation at hand. Certain aspects of Tweeden’s life which apparently go to her believability are also of questionable application. Tweeden may have fabricated or embellished whether or not she could’ve gotten into Harvard in the past. She is a noted conservative who has professed admiration for Trump and has appeared on Sean Hannity’s show to talk about birtherism, and she may have a personal animus against the liberal Franken, whose political star was on the rise prior to the events which led to his resignation.

None of this means she is necessarily lying about being assaulted or interpreting Franken’s actions in this way, though, nor do the motivations of any of his accusers or the people who called for his resignation. Gillibrand, who continues to be lambasted for being among the first to publicly call for Franken’s resignation, points out that she didn’t end his Senate career—he did. He could’ve opted to soldier on despite the allegations against him and regardless of the strain it put on Gillibrand and Co.

Jeet Heer, national-affairs correspondent at The Nation, addresses Mayer’s article and notions that Franken was “railroaded” or otherwise was a victim of circumstances, as she might make it seem. Like Mayer, Heer alludes to Franken as a sort of “ghost” haunting the Democratic Party with claims he was all but forced out without consideration of due process.

Heer concedes that Tweeden’s account of unwanted touching and kissing “has all the earmarks of a politically motivated smear.” The problem: there are still seven other accusers. Mayer’s juxtaposition of this alongside Franken’s physical “obtuseness” makes for a strange defense. All his accusers are women and their allegations are of a sexual nature. It’s more than just his being a “hugger.”

There’s also the matter of Franken’s defenders weighing his actions against the Harvey Weinsteins and Strom Thurmonds of the world. Again, in contrast to partisan relativism, Heer speaks to “setting a minimum standard of respect,” regardless of political affiliation or likability. For that matter, all the people jumping at the chance to exonerate Franken or come to his defense because of what they “know” about him is not a guarantee. What they think they know may be dependent on their limited interactions with him or what he allows others to see. I’m not saying the reverse can’t be true, mind you, but human beings are, well, complicated.

As Heer cites Rebecca Traister, New York magazine writer-at-large, if Franken took a leave of absence to re-examine the effect his conduct might have had on women in his life and later came back to speak to women’s rights and the responsibility of men in the #MeToo era, he might still be serving the people of Minnesota in an official capacity today. It was his silence and the conviction he’d be given ample time and a thorough investigation into his affairs that was his undoing—fair or unfair.

Heer takes this a step further in closing by saying that Franken’s playing the victim betrays his lack of understanding of the whole situation and creates a barrier to any real sense of redemption in the future. He writes:

If we want #MeToo to be effective, we need to be careful to distinguish between major criminals and petty transgressors. We also need to figure out how to reintegrate figures like Franken into society. But you can’t have forgiveness without contrition. To this day, Franken sees himself as a victim. Until that changes, there can be no healing.

In his resignation speech back in 2018, Franken was anything but contrite. Instead, he insisted that he knows who he really is and considered it an irony that he was leaving office while Trump, who once bragged about groping women, is president and Moore, who has preyed on young women, has political aspirations. His parting remarks, draped in comparisons to the worst the GOP has to offer, offered sentiments of “no regrets.” It bears wondering whether his accusers could or would say the same, even assuming the small magnitude of his purported offenses.


A big question I have in relation to Jane Mayer’s essay and why The New Yorker felt the need to publish it is: why now? Why are we reconsidering Al Franken’s fall with everything going on with the 2020 presidential race looming, the Trump administration, and any number of crises facing the country and the world today?

Part of the answer would seem to lie with the notion we need someone like Franken in American political discourse. Last year, Bill Maher, in a brave act of defending another white male like himself, expressed the belief that we need a comedian like Franken to ridicule Donald Trump and take down other “rightwing blowhards.” In doing so, he assailed the credibility of Leeann Tweeden, minimized the charges of Franken’s other accusers, and shot back at “purists” who overreact only to suffer from buyer’s remorse later on.

More recently, Pete Buttigieg, when asked during a town hall whether he would’ve called for Franken’s ouster, replied that he “would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more.” It probably helps that Buttigieg has raised funds alongside big-bucks Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, who previously endorsed Kamala Harris despite the fact she was one of the first Senate Democrats to advocate for Franken’s resignation and who has made public positions on the end of Franken’s tenure somewhat of a sticking point. Evidently, the goal is to beat Trump by any means necessary—even it means compromising our moral standards.

To the extent that Franken could add to the discussion on resisting Trump, his absence is regrettable. Are his talents so unique that a void like his in American politics can’t be filled, however? This much seems dubious. To say that Franken was one of the more interesting members of the Senate isn’t saying much. For the integral role Congress plays in shaping the American experience, it is filled with boring people and uninspired ideas. This reality doesn’t obviate the public’s responsibility to hold these public servants accountable and to actively participate in issue advocacy, mind you. Then again, even if this doesn’t excuse voters tuning out, you can sort of understand why they do.

If the Democrats are that desperate to have Franken back because he is the only one who can stand up to Trump or the only one who possesses the requisite skill to ridicule him to the point it rattles him, however, it would seem there are bigger problems within the Democratic Party. It’s along the lines of needing Jon Stewart back as a voice of empathy, reason, and wit in late-night television. Do I miss him? Of course. But if we can’t find others who can approach his level of thoughtful criticism and oddball humor, we might be in more trouble than we know.

One of the lessons of the #MeToo era with which people still appear to be grappling is that men who abuse their fame or position of influence are infinitely replaceable. (The label of “abuser” does not apply to Stewart, to be clear; I invoked him simply as an illustration of my earlier point.) Louis C.K., while clearly talented, is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to stand-up comedy. Nor is Kevin Spacey God’s gift to acting. Without wanting to seem cruel, life goes on. If we can’t meet the need for artists, politicians, producers, writers, and other professionals without sanctioning their alleged violations of boundaries, we’ve clearly failed as a society. No amount of good deeds, intelligence, leadership skills, or talent should supersede another’s right to his or her bodily autonomy and physical safety.

Will Al Franken ever return to the limelight, and with that, U.S. politics? Who knows? In the event he doesn’t, it may be ultimately be unfair to him, though the number of credible accusations against him suggests otherwise. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t feel he needs to apologize because he did nothing wrong. Regardless, though some of us may want him back, that doesn’t signify a need. Yes, we should talk about how and whether to weigh the offenses in each case. Yes, we should discuss how to handle less-than-perfect accusers. But we can do so looking forward rather than back.

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.