Enough with the Vote Shaming Already

It’s Joe Biden’s ultimate responsibility to sell voters on Joe Biden. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Following Bernie Sanders’s all-but-inevitable departure from the Democratic Party presidential primary race, the endorsements have been coming fast and furious for Joe Biden, the Dems’ presumptive nominee, including from Bernie himself.

Soon after Bernie’s surprisingly-early public backing of his friend and former senatorial colleague during a recent Biden livestream, Barack Obama, the yin to Biden’s yang during his tenure in the Oval Office, threw his weight behind Joe’s candidacy. Not long after that, Elizabeth Warren, who notably abstained from endorsements when it came down to just Bernie and Biden, also got behind the latter with a proud endorsement video for the man who loves Amtrak, aviators, and ice cream.

Echoing the positions of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement, however, I don’t endorse Joe Biden. I wouldn’t necessarily counsel against voting for him, mind you, especially for those who live in swing states, and I also believe even probable nonvoters should contribute to the discussion by trying to influence the party platform in a progressive direction. Either way, though, I am patently against trying to shame those who are undecided or have indicated they won’t vote for Biden into doing so.

First things first, if you’ve read my writing for any length of time, you know I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter through and through. How could I advocate not endorsing or not voting for Biden when my main man Bernie suggested it would be “irresponsible” for me not to?

Well, despite what some of you may have heard or might believe, we Bernie faithful are not members of a cult or bots. We can think independently of our inspirational leader. In fact, there are many who donated to the Sanders campaign and who otherwise supported Bernie’s run for the White House who wanted to see him go harder after Biden and his record when they became the final two candidates for the nomination. We believe Bernie’s a great man, but he’s not infallible. We can openly disagree with him.

This is besides the notion that, after years of being labeled as “toxic” and being dismissed as “Bernie Bros” who are predominantly young and white and hate women and want everything handed on a silver platter to them, all of a sudden, our votes are highly desirable and our endorsements are expected to mean something. Well, which one is it? Are we toxic, to be avoided at all costs? Or are we highly-valued members of the voting bloc/Democratic Party supporters? You can’t have it both ways.

(At this point, it might behoove me to mention that the concept of “Bernie Bros” being more liable to attack people online than supporters of other candidates is a myth perpetuated in large part by media outlets, more correctly attributable to his popularity. But please don’t allow me to let observable data get in the way of a good narrative.)

Plus, there’s the matter of the logical trap surrounding the “a vote for anyone but Biden is a vote for Trump” line. By extension, by one not voting for Trump, isn’t that the same as voting for Biden? If not, how so?

This is where, before I get ahead of myself, I openly concede Joe Biden and Donald Trump aren’t the same—and it’s not even close. Trump is a bigot, a cheat, a con man, a fraud, and a liar. Worse yet, he’s not remotely good at his job.

We’ve seen 3+ years of President Trump and the results include an administration continuously full of upheaval and vacancies; a Cabinet full of millionaires, billionaires, and other cronies; an escalation of racist and xenophobic rhetoric; a fast track for confirmation of federal judges thinly veiled in their prejudices and often incompetent; a tax cut that primarily favors wealthier earners; weakened protections for the environment and the LGBTQIA+ community; and a woeful response to the present threat of coronavirus/COVID-19 marked by political favoritism and hampered by a lack of due preparation. All the while, Trump, when not enriching himself, playing golf, tweeting, or watching FOX News, deflects blame, undermining a free press as “the enemy of the people.” It’s hard to imagine a worse president in the modern era than Donald J. Trump.

Returning to the question of the fallacy that not voting for the Democrat is a vote for the Republican and vice versa then, the only way this equivalency loses validity is if you consider that one candidate’s supporters are that much more likely to come out for their chosen nominee than the other’s. Such is potentially a big problem for Biden: enthusiasm. As recently as the end of March, an ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed only 24% of those surveyed strongly support Biden over Trump, while more than half of prospective Trump voters surveyed indicated they are “very” enthusiastic about casting their ballots for the incumbent. That’s worse than what Hillary Clinton encountered in 2016 at this point in the race—and we all know how that turned out.

Why the lack of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe? Maybe because he’s—and I’m just spit-balling here—not that good of a candidate. Through all these proud endorsements by the likes of Obama, Sanders, and Warren, a lot has been said about his character, his lifetime of public service, and his leadership. On the other hand, little, if anything, has been said about his policy positions or a cohesive vision for America’s future, and talk of his supposed progressive credentials flies in the face of his actual record.

The image Obama et al. are creating is an idealized version of Biden, one designed to drum up votes and drive home the differences between him and Trump on dimensions like empathy. It does not consider Biden’s stalwart opposition to Medicare for All and other single-payer health insurance systems, even during a global pandemic that is seeing record numbers of Americans file for unemployment and get kicked off their employer-sponsored healthcare plans. It does not consider his halfhearted embrace of the Green New Deal which would see the United States miss a net zero emissions target date of 2030 recommended by progressives by two decades. It does not consider his support for student debt cancellation only for some income levels, not all, and not after siding with lenders on a 2005 bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to file for bankruptcy and unable to discharge their student loan debt through bankruptcy. It’s revisionist history that re-characterizes Biden’s identity as the poster boy for political expediency as something greater than what it actually is.

All this hagiographic elevation of Biden also fails to consider limiting factors that would seemingly disqualify most other candidates. One is his cognitive decline, obvious to anyone who has eyes and ears. It’s why we have not seen or heard more of him since the coronavirus prompted a state of national emergency in the United States. It’s why he’s reliant on cue cards, notes, or teleprompters during all planned appearances, which are often short and have his wife, Jill, leading him along. It’s why we see clip after clip of him laboring with his speech, struggling to form complete sentences and thoughts. This is more than gaffes or a stutter—and it’s not a secret to Republicans either.

The other big problem with Biden as the candidate of a major party, particularly one that touts its inclusivity and its strong female leadership, is the list of allegations made against him by various women of unwanted touching or close physical proximity. Most serious among them, and yet disappointingly underreported, is the account of Tara Reade, a staffer for Biden in the 90s, who claims that Biden sexually and verbally assaulted her.

Despite comparisons to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh prior to his confirmation to the Supreme Court and despite Reade seeming credible in her retelling of details about the alleged assault, many of the same people loudly calling for Kavanaugh’s withdrawal as a nominee are expressing their doubts about the veracity of Reade’s public statements. The primary difference herein appears to be not whether Reade is believable, but that Biden is a Democrat backed by the party establishment, while Kavanaugh was jammed through confirmation by Senate Republicans. He’s on our team, not yours. At least he’s not as bad as Trump. A victory for women and #MeToo, this isn’t.

Given all this, it’s no wonder enthusiasm for Joe Biden—the “white moderate” warned about by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who is cognitively impaired, has no empathy for young people, has few clear policy goals, and may be guilty of sexual assault—is so low. Even after a term of President Trump, that Biden is a tough sell should be immediately concerning to Democratic Party leadership and the “vote blue no matter who” crowd all the same.


So what, you may be thinking. If you’re not voting to stop the madman in the White House, maybe you should be ashamed. You just refuse to accept that your guy is not the one going for the nomination. He didn’t have the votes. It’s over. Get over your privilege and get behind the winner. We’re ridin’ with Biden.

I get it—a second term of President Trump would not be felt as severely by all Americans, much as is the case now. The horror stories of migrants kept in detention, denied asylum despite the dangers they face in their countries of origin. The families negatively affected by the Muslim ban masquerading as a travel ban. The anti-Asian hate being fomented as a result of fear and misinformation about COVID-19. The administration’s attempt to erase trans people. It’s not something I like imagining.

All the same, time and energy spent shaming people on social media is arguably misused when considering all the people who won’t vote even though they can and because they have been disenfranchised regardless of what party is in power. Glenn Greenwald, in a recent piece appearing on The Intercept, explores how nonvoters are disproportionately lower-income, nonwhite, and dissatisfied with the two major parties.

Citing Pew Research Center data from 2018, Greenwald finds that 56% of nonvoters in the 2016 presidential election made less than $30,000 per year. More than half of non-voters were age 49 or younger or were high-school-educated or less, and nearly half of nonvoters were non-white. Moreover, while voter suppression efforts of these groups are both “real are pernicious,” the idea that nonvoters are frequently not registering because they are dissatisfied with their choices or don’t believe their vote will make a difference is significant. It would, too, seek to dispel “the outright, demonstrable falsehood that those who choose not to vote are primarily rich, white, and thus privileged, while those who lack those privileges — voters of color and poorer voters — are unwilling to abstain.” In saying this, Greenwald is fixated on the bubbles we find ourselves in when we subsist only on a diet of one-sided cable news and social media.

It is this understanding that begs the question: How many indignities are progressives supposed to endure in their earnest attempts to help reform the Democratic Party and to defeat the Donald Trumps of today and tomorrow? Bernie Sanders ultimately didn’t make the case to enough Democratic primary voters that he is the most “electable” and is the right choice to take on Trump and the GOP. His, like any campaign, was flawed.

Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has suffered from a lack of organization and funding throughout his run. He placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary. It was because of his strong showing in South Carolina and the coalescence of the Democratic Party around Biden that he was able to vault to the lead for the nomination and never look back, further buoyed by a media narrative that celebrated his comeback uncritically.

To make things worse, Barack Obama has had more influence on said coalescence than he would lead or like you to believe. As reports have indicated, the former president was influential in getting Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to endorse Biden right around the time they bowed out of the race. Obama also held several conversations with Bernie to help “accelerate the endgame” before the Wisconsin primary results were made public.

Most chillingly, and regarding that Wisconsin primary, according to insider reports, Biden’s campaign was “eager” to have it run as originally scheduled or else they’d turn up the heat on Bernie to drop out, a notion Obama stressed in his conversations with Sanders. For all the “bad optics” of 2015 and 2016, this blatant favoritism of the establishment candidate over the progressive is yet harder to bear four years later. That Biden and his team would encourage people to go the polls during a global pandemic and despite widespread closures and poll worker shortages is all the more reprehensible. This was always about stopping Bernie and then beating Trump. Any pretense otherwise is beyond absurd at this point.

Joe Biden isn’t Donald Trump, and if you’re voting for the former to stop the latter, I understand completely. When people don’t share your enthusiasm for voting strategically and when they perceive that nothing meaningful will change regardless, though, trying to bully, demean, or insult them into voting is of questionable, if any, utility. So enough with the vote shaming already. You’d be better off making calls and trying to engage with disaffected nonvoters by understanding their points of view if you truly want to avoid disaster in November.

Ilhan Omar’s Sin: Crossing the Pro-Israel Lobby

Ilhan Omar invoked the name AIPAC and discussed the role of money in politics in reference to the U.S.-Israel alliance. That doesn’t make her an anti-Semite. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull)

“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”

When Rep. Ilhan Omar intimated that the United States’ alliance with Israel is motivated primarily by money and later responded to a tweet asking who she thinks is paying politicians to be pro-Israel with the one-word reply, “AIPAC!”, the first-term senator could’ve chosen her words better. After all, it’s not truly all about the Benjamins. There are legitimate cultural, ethnic, geopolitical and religious concerns to be had with mapping out the two countries’ strategic partnership.

All the same, Omar’s comments clearly struck a nerve, and not just because of her purported anti-Semitism. That she was so swiftly rebuked by members of both parties suggests that, despite her indelicacy, she was more right than many of her colleagues would like you to know. In addition, the backlash Rep. Omar has received provides yet another lesson about the substantive role money plays in American politics and the degree to which it holds sway over the two major parties.

As always, context helps. This past Sunday, an article appeared on Haaretz.com regarding House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s vow to take action against fellow representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar for their criticism of Israel. In McCarthy’s mind, these women’s views are on par with or worse than that of Steve King, whose defense of white supremacy has prompted bilateral calls for his removal from key House committees, and in some cases, his outright resignation.

Even the authors of the Haaretz article noted it was unclear to what comments McCarthy was referring and, thus, to what extent anti-Semitism played a part. Speaking less diplomatically, though, come the f**k on.

In Tlaib’s and Omar’s case, their most notable “offenses” have been their support for the BDS movement, which advocates for boycotts of, divestment from, and sanctions of Israel for creating what supporters of the movement liken to an apartheid state. It’s a controversial movement in that its criticisms of Israel are met with their own countercriticisms that A) Israel is not an apartheid state, B) BDS is anti-Semitic, and C) these criticisms of Israel would seek to delegitimize it.

In King’s case, meanwhile, it’s repeated defense of white supremacist talking points. The man has also repeatedly re-tweeted and met with far-right nationalist leaders across continents. At the very least, McCarthy is engaging in a bit of disingenuous whataboutism. Either way, it’s an implausible false equivalency. Besides, Tlaib and Omar are new to the D.C. scene and don’t possess nearly the stature and platform King does given his veteran experience in Congress. Rep. King has been dining on nativist bigotry while holding a federal public office seat for over a decade now.

With all this in mind, journalist Glenn Greenwald reacted to the cited piece with a tweet broadly condemning U.S. political leaders for their defense of a foreign nation at the expense of Americans’ free speech rights. To which Omar retweeted Greenwald with the titular line from the seminal Puff Daddy hit, setting off a political firestorm.

In the minds of many, it wasn’t just that Omar was inaccurate with her invocation of AIPAC and the Israel lobby, but that she appeared to do so by trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes. For Omar’s detractors, here were the tropes about “Jewish greed” and “Jews control the world with their money” all over again. The reference to AIPAC also ruffled feathers by suggesting that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is not an actual political action committee or PAC, gives donations directly to members of Congress. AIPAC merely encourages people to be generous with their contributions to pro-Israel members of the House and Senate. And it spends its money on lobbying, not on individual candidate campaigns.

But lo, how it spends on lobbying. As Matthew Yglesias of Vox fame explains, in 2018, AIPAC spent $3.5 million on lobbying, far and away the most when it comes to foreign policy influence (second on the list is UNICEF, which managed less than $1 million). This doesn’t include what Yglesias describes as “lavish” accommodations and airfare for trips to Israel for members of Congress and their families.

Accordingly, for all the furor over Rep. Omar’s tweets, precipitated by a largely unfounded attack on her and another female Muslim congresswoman, there was a teachable moment about how money in politics impacts stated policy positions and influences policy directives. In the ensuing outrage, however, that got lost.

Instead, people tweeted their dismay, pro-Israel members of Congress expressed their indignation, and even Chelsea Clinton somewhat bizarrely weighed in to advise Omar against reliance on anti-Semitic tropes “as an American” and, evidently, as a self-appointed arbiter of responsible language toward Jews and Israel. By the time Nancy Pelosi was condemning Omar’s remarks, the track to the Minnesota representative’s apology was well-oiled. Within a day of her initial retweet of Glenn Greenwald, Ilhan Omar issued a public mea culpa, taking absolutely the right tone. She professed that she never meant to offend her constituents, Jews, and the combination therein and indicated a willingness to accept criticism and learn from episodes like this.

As mentioned earlier, the magnitude of the outcry against Omar and the rapidity with which it occurred were striking, and the fallout from the fracas is still being felt. President Donald Trump himself, a man who is no stranger to controversy, rejected Omar’s apology as “lame” and made his preference known that she be removed from committees or asked to resign much in the way Steve King has been. Indeed, even for some of those who appreciate the nuance of what Omar was saying and the point she was trying to make about the corrosive nature of lobbyist money, they lament how she has given cannon fodder to the Republican Party and risked driving a wedge between her own party. So much for the power of social media.

And so much for that teachable moment. What could have been a meaningful dialog on the role of money has since degraded into a reflexive conversation about what constitutes anti-Semitism. This is not to say, of course, that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist or that it isn’t on the rise. Heck, a man ran unopposed as a Republican for Congress in the state of Illinois as a Holocaust denier just last November and got 25% of the vote. Still, if there was a lesson learned, it was not ours, but rather Omar’s. The lesson was to watch what you say about the pro-Israel lobby, and while instructive, it’s not all that gratifying for her or the rest of us.


Ilhan Omar’s apology was intriguing in that it was “unequivocal,” yet still strove to reaffirm the problematic nature of lobbying as it concerns AIPAC, the fossil fuel industry, and the NRA, to name a few. For the townsfolk holding torches and pitchforks, this was only salt in the proverbial wound and a hollow apology. From my standpoint, I believe Omar was sincere in what she said and that her allusions to Jewish stereotypes concerning money were unintentional. Granted, she could’ve chosen her words better, but there was more substance in her words than reporting on this to-do would lead the casual news consumer to believe. If her apology seemed forced, it’s likely because it was made to appease the members of Congress who disagree with her stance—both those who would weaponize it for political gain or discourage it because of fear of that very phenomenon.

In referring to the disingenuousness of Kevin McCarthy’s part in all of this that started this controversy off and running, his participation is not without a sense of irony. McCarthy made an appeal prior to the MAGA base in October warning voters to choose Republican in the 2018 election so as not to “allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election.” If Omar’s tweets can be branded as anti-Semitic, McCarthy’s (now-deleted) tweet sure can.

He’s not the only one. For all of the kosher meat Donald Trump has been throwing to the Zionist cause since being elected, prior to that, he was using anti-Semitic tropes and depictions of cash next to pictures of Hillary Clinton, dog-whistling from his platform as presumptive Republican Party nominee. Just because these men aren’t Muslims or don’t support the BDS movement doesn’t mean the allegations against them are any less valid.

As much as AIPAC’s mention has been papered over by the mainstream media, moreover, there are those who would defend Rep. Omar for her attention to a group that routinely deflects criticism from its membership and from the Israeli government, branding dissent as anti-Semitic and intimidating those who advocate for anything other than the status quo. Glenn Greenwald, for one, sees Omar’s censure as a segment of a pattern, pointing to attempts by Haim Saban, the Democratic National Committee’s top donor and outspokenly pro-Israel, to label Democrat Keith Ellison, also a Muslim, as an anti-Semite because of his public condemnation of Israeli expansion of settlements into contested lands.

It’s not like AIPAC has exactly been flying under the radar lately, either. As Ryan Grim of The Intercept recently reported, leaders of the pro-Israel lobby were caught on camera discussing the extent and nature of their influence, detailing how the Committee and its donors organize events in such a way so as not to be tied to the funds they generate. Plus, there’s the whole business of AIPAC using Ilhan Omar’s controversy in it of itself as a cause for a fundraiser. Nothing demonstrates your indignation and your support of Israel like a hefty donation. Please—be generous.

Despite calls for her head, so to speak, Omar has handled this whole situation with aplomb and has not backed down from her critics—at least not the Republican ones. She notably fired back at Pres. Trump pointing out to his track record of spewing hateful rhetoric following his aforementioned rejection of her apology.

Thus, as unfortunately as some would insist this all played out, the strength and—dare I say—chutzpah she and Rashida Tlaib have shown when dealing with negative attention suggests the Democratic Party’s diversity truly is a strength. It’s up to the Democrats to decide whether or not they’ll stand behind strong progressives like them or let moneyed interests dictate who they support and when.

The Bob Menendez Conundrum

menend-itis
For a candidate with superior legislative experience and supposedly stronger “Jersey values,” Bob Menendez is awfully compromised by his ethical failings. That fellow New Jersey Democrats rallied behind him so quickly after his criminal trial speaks to a dysfunctional political process in his home state and with the Democratic Party at large. (Photo Credit: Benedikt von Loebell/World Economic Forum/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Though you probably don’t need a reminder, in 2016, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Despite getting fewer votes than Hillary Clinton overall, Trump won enough states—and the right states, at that—to secure victory under the current system. In the minds of many voters, Trump’s lack of experience in public office, his moral failings, and his platform predicated on demonization of “the other” were negligible next to their dislike of Hillary Clinton and her perceived corruption.

Pundits and average voters alike (rightly) have criticized this viewpoint in the endless postmortem dissection of the election to follow. But the notion remains that Americans, jaded about the country’s politics and/or susceptible to political rhetoric, viewed these candidates on par with one another. This, despite Clinton’s obviously superior comprehension of D.C.’s workings and her message—however genuine—that “love trumps hate.” Trump’s triumph seemed to be a clear signal to establishment politicians that voters are fed up with the status quo and are willing to roll the dice on an unpolished outsider, even if it risks further damaging the institutions they regard as broken.

It’s 2018 now and the midterms are fast approaching. As evidenced by the race for Bob Menendez’s seat in the Senate, though, little has changed in the Democrats’ approach to winning elections. At a time when winning back the House and/or Senate is a priority for the Democratic Party, it bears wondering whether history will repeat itself and the Dems will find themselves on the losing end once more, even with apparent momentum.

First, a little background re Menendez. Back in June, in a piece for The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about how Menendez was set to garner the Democratic Party nomination for New Jersey’s Senate seat up for grabs this November, and how his nomination serves as a symbol of how “calcified” the party really is. For Greenwald and numerous New Jerseyans, the issue with Menendez, who is seeking a third term in the Senate and is a veteran of Congress of 26 years, is his—how shall I put this?—questionable attention to ethics.

As Greenwald details, the public integrity unit of the Obama administration’s Justice Department began prosecution of Sen. Menendez in 2015, bringing him up on a dozen federal corruption and bribery charges. Allegedly, Menendez accepted lavish gifts and donations from friend and supporter Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist,  in exchange for helping Melgen resolve disputes with federal health agencies, secure contracts, and obtain visas for three of his female “associates.”

Ultimately, the case against Menendez was dismissed because of a hung jury, but as Greenwald characterizes this situation, the New Jersey senator benefited from federal bribery statutes diluted “to the point of virtual impotence” by the Supreme Court over the years. Without the presence of a “smoking gun,” as several jurors in the case cited in their refusal to convict, convictions of public officials are “close to impossible to obtain.” The Trump DOJ, as apparently litigious and vindictive as it is, opted not to re-try Menendez. All of this occurred amid Menendez receiving a public admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting and failing to disclose gifts, effectually bringing discredit to a legislative body that hasn’t been all too credible of late, especially in the minds of everyday Americans.

And yet, as Greenwald explains, Menendez’s fellow Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, then-governor-elect Phil Murphy, state senate president Steve Sweeney, then-incoming State Assembly president Craig Coughlin, and influential party leader George Norcross, were quick to rally around him. Thus, with an advantage in party support and finances, any primary challenge was all but a non-starter.

It bears highlighting that Greenwald criticizes more than just Menendez’s ability to skirt convictions owing to lax bribery statutes, and that his fault-finding is indicative of larger reservations about the Democratic Party on a national level. For one, as chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Menendez is an influential and outspoken Iran hawk, and during George W. Bush’s tenure, he voted with Republicans to authorize the Bush-Cheney Military Commissions Act, which later would be deemed unconstitutional. Menendez also has been a staunch supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and for his trouble, has received donations from AIPAC supporters and officials, including significant sums for the costs of his legal defense.

Greenwald sums up his case against Menendez thusly:

This is how calcified the Democratic Party is: They even unite behind an incumbent who is drowning in sleaze and corruption, who was just “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee, whose legal defense was funded by far-right figures, and who has used his senior leadership role to repeatedly join with the Bush-Cheney and right-wing GOP factions against his own party’s supposed positions. Not only do they unite behind him, but they ensure that no primary challenge can even happen — they deny their own voters the right to decide if they want Menendez — by making it impossible for any such challengers to raise money from funders who rely on the largesse of Democratic officeholders and who thus, do not want to run afoul of their decreed preferences.

Whether New Jerseyans outside the progressive vanguard are fully aware of Bob Menendez’s profile as a U.S. senator is a matter of debate. His very public corruption charges, on the other hand, are fresh in the minds of voters, and likely explain why Menendez performed relatively poorly against Lisa McCormick, a virtual unknown, in the Democratic Party primary. It also likely explains to a large extent why a recent Stockton University (GO OSPREYS!) poll has the race between Menendez and his Republican opponent Bob Hugin essentially in a dead heat.

So, who is Bob Hugin? Hugin grew up in Union City, NJ, and attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, later earning an MBA from University of Virginia. He also served as an active duty infantry officer in the 70s and 80s, and a reserve officer after that. In terms of his professional life, Hugin has worked at J.P. Morgan, and most recently, spent close to two decades with Celgene Corporation, a biotechnology company which manufactures drugs for cancer and other chronic illnesses.

As for Hugin’s positions on the issues, among other things, he supports the move of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, increased domestic production of oil and natural gas, opposing “sanctuary cities” and securing our borders, enhancing our vetting process for immigrants, increased military spending, school choice, extraditing Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard as part of relations with Cuba, and accountability for North Korea given any denuclearization agreements. Much of Hugin’s platform, meanwhile, lacks specificity, particularly when, say, addressing New Jersey’s finances or the state’s health care. While he may appear more socially moderate than someone like Donald Trump, his stances are, on the whole, generic conservative Republican.

Moreover, Hugin is not without unsavory elements in his past. At Princeton, he fought antidiscrimination protection for gays, and later opposed making an all-male eating club co-ed, describing a lawsuit at the time to overturn the gender exclusivity policy as “politically correct fascism.” Hugin says his views have “evolved” since then. Additionally, as CEO of Celgene, Hugin oversaw significant price increases in cancer drugs. Hugin and the company have defended these increases as necessary to offset expenses, but consumer advocates have accused them of “gaming the system” to prevent generics from reaching the market and artificially keeping revenues high. In an era when executive behavior is under increasing scrutiny, this is not a good look.

For all Bob Hugin’s baggage, however, given how ethically compromised Bob Menendez is perceived to be, it’s hard for him to connect in his attacks on Hugin’s character in a meaningful way. How can one point fingers about the other’s greed when he himself was accused of accepting lavish gifts? Even the indignation about the excesses of Big Pharma seems misplaced considering Menendez has received over $900,000 from the pharmaceutical industry over the course of his legislative career. These monies include 2012 donations from Celgene employees; Menendez was third-highest in Congress in donations from Celgene employees that election cycle. Bob, meet Bob. Pot, meet kettle.

It is no surprise that nearly all of the content of the political ads between Hugin and Menendez has been negative, attack-oriented fare rather than substantive reasons to vote for either candidate. As it concerns the latter individual, the strategy seems to be a shrug and a “take me as I am” attitude, much as it was with Hillary Clinton and the outrage about her E-mails and other scandals, however disproportionately they may have figured into the 2016 election. For most Democratic voters this election cycle, it means biting the proverbial bullet and casting their ballot for Menendez or staying home and risking losing a Senate seat to the Republicans. Electorally speaking, it’s the equivalent of being caught between a rock and a hard place.


In making allusions to Clinton vs. Trump, I recognize that different factors were in play than with Menendez vs. Hugin. Though Hillary and her supporters might’ve been quick to accuse her critics of sexism, gender bias almost certainly had an impact on the race. There also hasn’t been anything close to the magnitude of what happened with James Comey and his fateful letter to Congress—though it’s still early, mind you. Plus, there’s the obvious contrast in the levels of the races being run; Clinton/Trump was a national race for the presidency, while Menendez/Hugin is a state race for a seat in the U.S. Senate. For what it’s worth, Bob Hugin (thankfully) isn’t Donald Trump, to boot.

Differences aside, the essence of the conflict for potential Democratic voters is the same: as with Clinton and Trump, an experienced Democratic Party politician may lose to a Republican with no history of holding public office who touts his ability to create jobs (which he had to do as a function of running a business) as a crowning achievement. In Bob Menendez’s case, it’s particularly bad given a) New Jersey tends to vote “blue,” b) the president, a Republican, is largely unpopular, and c) the state just lived through two terms of Republican Governor Chris Christie, also largely unpopular.

I’m not suggesting it should be a walk-over for Menendez necessarily, and you may well dispute the predictive accuracy of the Stockton University poll or any similar poll. As some observers might argue, however, Menendez and his campaign waited a while to get into the fray with political advertisements, allowing Bob Hugin to strike first. In a blue state like New Jersey, Bob Menendez would be expected to have a lead, even if slight. An effective tie is vaguely embarrassing, and is downright disturbing to those leaning left with visions of “flipping” the House and Senate.

I’m also not suggesting Democrats, independents, and others with qualms about Menendez should necessarily choose otherwise or just stay home either. While I might strongly suggest that my fellow New Jerseyans not vote for Hugin, their vote is their business. Should Hugin end up as the victor, though, blame should be placed primarily on the shoulders of Bob Menendez and his campaign, not his constituents. The onus should be on the candidate to make the case to voters why they should choose him or her, rather than accusing or shaming voters for their choices. Sure, greater turnout should be encouraged. Pointing the finger at average voters who have to work and/or may not have much concern for politics seems like a poor tack to take, meanwhile, notably when both parties are yet more unpopular than individual politicians.

At any rate, voters in New Jersey and other states deserve better than to feel forced to cast their ballots for candidates they feel hard-pressed to endorse without meaningful and robust primary challenges and without room for serious debate. And they shouldn’t have to worry they are giving their implicit consent and reinforcing the bad political strategy of the major political parties with their vote. In the grand scheme of things, Bob Menendez is just one candidate in one race. But his situation is representative of a larger dysfunction within American party politics that beckons substantive reform.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Primary Win Has People Shook

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of long-time congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for NY-14 has Democrats, the mainstream media, and Republicans all flustered. Good. (Photo Credit: Twitter/Jesse Korman

In advance of this year’s New York Democratic primaries, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had already generated a lot of attention, thanks in large part to a viral campaign advertisement called “The Courage to Change.” The spot highlights how Ocasio-Cortez is, to put it simply, not your average congressional candidate. As the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaigner says in a voiceover for the two-minute ad:

Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office. I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family. Mother from Puerto Rico, dad from the South Bronx. I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny. My name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’m an educator, an organizer, a working-class New Yorker. I’ve worked with expectant mothers, I’ve waited tables, and led classrooms, and going into politics wasn’t in the plan.

So, what compelled the 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez to run? Not to suggest her campaign is a derivative one, but her platform sounds a lot like one belonging to a certain Vermont senator who ran for president:

After 20 years of the same representation, we have to ask: who has New York been changing for? Every day gets harder for working families like mine to get by. The rent gets higher, health care covers less, and our income stays the same. It’s clear that these changes haven’t been for us, and we deserve a champion. It’s time to fight for a New York that working families can afford.

That’s why I’m running for Congress. This race is about people vs. money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money. It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us. What the Bronx and Queens need is Medicare-for-all, tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reform.

We can do it now. It doesn’t take a hundred years to do this. It takes political courage. A New York for the many is possible. It’s time for one of us.

Ocasio-Cortez has stated her campaign is not about progressives vs. establishment Democrats, and rather, that it’s about people over politics and money, but it’s clear from her mission statement that she’s there in opposition to politics as usual, and if that means going through long-tenured party members to do it, so be it.

In particular, her campaign spot name-checks Joe Crowley, Democratic representative from her district and member of the House since 1999 (hence, the “20 years” reference). Crowley, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem like a bad guy per se, but he also represents the centrist, “old white guy” political mold that voters increasingly are eschewing in their embrace of substantive policy ideas (and it probably doesn’t help he’s been chummy with lobbyists and pro-business types). Sure, he’s moved farther left than when he started in Congress, but going against someone who looks and sounds like a real-deal progressive, he and others like him are suddenly more vulnerable.

As the title of this post would indicate, they may be very vulnerable, indeed. In a fairly surprising result, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took down the 10-term incumbent Crowley in last week’s primary, capturing 57% of the vote. Ocasio-Cortez’s “upset” win is surprising for any number of reasons, not the least of which are her status as a relative unknown and political neophyte, Crowley’s entrenchment in Washington, and her being outdone roughly 10-to-one in campaign spending. Ocasio-Cortez’s political bid began seemingly as a feel-good story, and progressives likely would have been happy with her showing regardless of the outcome. Now, however, she appears poised to be a force to be reckoned with.

In the immediate aftermath of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upending of Joe Crowley’s re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-election bid, it would seem few are really well equipped to reckon with her success. Certainly, that we are even treating her victory as a surprise is owed somewhat to the media’s previous lack of focus on her, a trend that others outside the establishment vanguard have encountered (see also Cynthia Nixon, of whom we would stand to know little if we weren’t already familiar with her acting).

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been consistently critical of the blind eye turned toward progressives in everyday political discourse, in particular chastised Joy-Ann Reid and MSNBC in a couple of tweets the day after Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win:

Compare @JoyAnnReid’s revealingly insular and self-justifying tweet above about how “political journalism” (i.e. MSNBC) ignored the @Ocasio2018 race to @brianstelter’s honest and accurate @CNN story on how several media outlets actually covered the race.

A cable network that is monomaniacally devoted to faithfully serving the agenda of Party leaders and uncritically disseminating their talking points is obviously going to miss – or deliberately suppress – any challenges to those Party dictates. That’s what happened there.

While MSNBC talking heads are overlooking progressive candidates for public office and even the sources that more closely follow them, moderate Democrats are painting Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as an anomaly or one-off rather than a sign of the times during this post-mortem period. Nancy Pelosi, notably, dismissed these returns from NY-14 as being indicative of a movement or anything “larger” than one district. It’s perplexing considering the energy and press following Ocasio-Cortez seem like things Democrats of all make and model should be embracing. Then again, this is Nancy Pelosi we’re talking about here, a woman that Republicans seeking office are only too happy to have around because she evidently possesses a Hillary Clinton-like ability to make public declarations GOP political advertisers can use to their strategic advantage to make her and the Dems seem out of touch.

Speaking of Republicans, they’ve got their own reasons to be scared of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Jay Willis, writing for GQ Magazine, explains that they’re “terrified” of the 28-year-old political hopeful, precisely because they can’t beat her on a policy debate. Instead, conservatives like John Cardillo have resorted to questioning her credentials right down to her upbringing, suggesting, among other things, that she grew up in a more wealthy household/neighborhood than she is otherwise letting on. This, to me, is akin to the types of conspiracy theories that would have you believe survivors of mass shootings and children separated from their families at the Mexican border are paid actors. It’s as reprehensible as it is dishonest.

In short, centrist Democrats, conservative Republicans, and corporatist media outlets all see Ocasio-Cortez as somewhat of a threat, and this seems to be as much about her identity as her policy goals. In talking about her “identity,” I’m referring not to Ocasio-Cortez’s Bronx upbringing or Puerto Rican heritage, but her self-identification as a “democratic socialist.”

Much in the way Bernie Sanders was assailed on all sides from people who failed to draw distinctions between “democratic socialism” and “socialism” and ostensibly socialist regimes which belie a dictatorial bent—or intentionally confused them—Ocasio-Cortez’s win is forcing to those on the left and right alike to come to grips with the dreaded S-word. Within the press community, numerous outlets have taken to publishing articles trying to explain for the uninitiated what the heck, exactly, democratic socialism is. Nancy Pelosi, while diminishing Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory, also has publicly rejected the notion that socialism is “ascendant” within Democratic ranks.

On the right, meanwhile, SOCIALISM! SOCIALISM! BURN THE WITCH! This salvo from Cheryl Chumley for The Washington Times entitled “Ocasio-Cortez, New York’s socialist congressional contender, an enemy of America,” I share because I find it especially repugnant. It characterizes her primary win as a “face slap to America” and an “affront to all the Founding Fathers forged.” Chumley is the same woman who recently authored an essay on how “Democrats hate America,” apparently with the numbers to prove this assertion. For the record, her “numbers” are one statistic from a Gallup poll that shows Democrats are less likely to be “extremely proud” to be an American than their Republican counterparts—which surely doesn’t have anything to do with the Trump White House, a GOP-led Congress, and a conservative-majority Supreme Court, right?—and vague sentiments that reference Antifa, democratic socialists, and Obama apologists into one nebulous mix to be feared and loathed. Sorry Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t look and sound and think like you, Ms. Chumley. I forgot that makes her automatically less American or patriotic.

But about those policy goals. In the vein of a Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supports progressive ideals such as Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, free tuition for public colleges, campaign finance reform, and housing as a human right. These are not new, and are not controversial to the extent that fellow Democrats may not explicitly argue against them, though they may be reluctant to embrace them in favor of more centrist policies.

Other views, meanwhile, are outside the mainstream, either by virtue of their direct opposition to commonly-held stances within the party or their relative novelty among leadership. For one, Ocasio-Cortez has been a vocal critic of Israel, and joins an evidently growing number of people on an international stage who question the free pass Netanyahu’s government receives for its actions related to Israeli settlements and its handling of Palestinian resistance to the latter group’s apparent subjugation.

While she hasn’t yet clarified her position on the BDS movement, that the Democratic Socialists of America are pro-boycott worries the Democratic elites who have come to count on wealthy Jewish patrons and staunchly pro-Israel groups among their lists of donors. It’s another point of potential division between factions within the Democratic Party, which tend to get played up for effect in the media anyway, but nonetheless may be indicative of a fracture between the old guard and the new vying to push the party in a certain diplomatic direction.

The other major policy quirk which has drawn additional attention to Ocasio-Cortez’s platform is her embrace of an “abolish ICE” mantra. On this note, her views seem to lack nuance, although it would likely be difficult to rally behind a cause with a more cumbersome message. As it would seem, Ocasio-Cortez only wants to “abolish” Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the extent that it would be replaced with a more accountable agency or otherwise reformed.

Of course, Republicans have sought to weaponize this stated goal by insinuating that Democrats who want to abolish ICE are asking for no border control at all, hence other Dems have been reluctant to embrace the slogan. Then again, in light of the ongoing crisis facing the detention and separation of immigrant families, as well as numerous alleged abuses by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, the discussion over what is permitted in the name of “border security” is a worthy one.

All this has made for a rather confusing dissection of a race that few outside of progressive circles and Ocasio-Cortez’s own support system were wont to predict in her favor, a dissection that tests us as consumers of the news to view our sources critically. After all, what these outlets say about the congressional hopeful may say as much about them as it does her. In the case of Cheryl Chumley, it reveals ugly attitudes predicated on jingoistic paranoia. As such, while the November election in New York’s 14th congressional district will now undoubtedly receive much more widespread attention, how much of it is good or fair remains to be seen.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has only just won the Democratic primary for her district, but given the heavy blue leanings of NY-14, she’s looking like a pretty sure bet to make it to Congress. Either way, there is real energy behind her and her campaign, and not just from New Yorkers.

In Ocasio-Cortez, many pundits see the future of the Democratic Party, one of female leadership and better representation for people of color and other minority groups. They also see, in progressives like Ocasio-Cortez daring to go “further left,” Democrats more authentically embracing the values that the party’s detractors would say mainline Dems have all but abandoned over the years, particularly in defending the working class and organized labor from attempts by the GOP to erode their influence.

By proxy, search for “Nancy Pelosi” and you’ll see umpteen calls for her to step aside or hand the baton over. Her defenders, meanwhile, see her as a great leader, prodigious fundraiser, and tireless worker, so it may just as well be that Pelosi isn’t going anywhere.

While comments to downplay Ocasio-Cortez’s and other progressives’ influence reflect poorly on Pelosi, it also is worth mentioning that one upset victory does not a party takeover make. This is not meant to throw water on the fire of young candidates on the rise, but rather to underscore the magnitude of the opposition others like Ocasio-Cortez will face from Democrats (esp. firmly-entrenched incumbents) and Republicans (esp. in red-leaning areas) alike.

Following Ocasio-Cortez’s win, candidates like Ayanna Presley in Massachusetts and Kerri Harris of Delaware have seen an uptick in their donations. Primary results still matter, though, and much work has to be done by their campaigns to build on their compatriot from New York’s success. In short, while there is momentum building, this is not to say that democratic socialism in the United States has truly arrived.

Still, that we’re even having this discussion about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the future of the Democratic Party means that we can’t rule out Presley’s or Harris’s chances, and that the discussion about whether platforms like theirs can be adapted to succeed in jurisdictions like the Midwest where the GOP possesses an advantage is a meritorious one. Seeing various reactions to Ocasio-Cortez’s win characterized by sheer bafflement, this only reinforces the idea few were ready for the eventuality of a liberal progressive gaining traction. Thus, while it’s too early to say what exactly this upset means, it’s highly intriguing to see people so “shook” over it.

Here’s hoping for a little more shaking-up before the 2018 election season is done.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

The Democratic Party Loves Diversity—As Long As It Doesn’t Stray Too Far from Center

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Chelsea Manning is running for a U.S. Senate seat as a Democrat, opposing incumbent Benjamin Cardin in the forthcoming primary. If you think the Democratic Party, a party that touts its diversity, is happy about this, though, you’d be mistaken. (Photo retrieved from Twitter.)

If you believe the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party, the Democrats are all about diversity. It’s a key selling point for the Blue Team as it tries to regain lost political ground from the Red Team a.k.a. the Republican Party. As the GOP continues to ally itself not only with the fiscal conservatism of the right, but the social conservatism that has seen its membership become—dare we say—dogmatic on issues like gun laws, “religious liberty,” and reproductive rights, the Dems wave their banner in the name of inclusion as a way of distancing and distinguishing themselves from Republicans. Indeed, Democratic leadership seems to be significantly more evolved on issues of gender, living with disabilities, race/ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, not to mention tending to give way more of a shit about the environment than their counterparts on the right, some of whom still try to deny that climate change, is, you know, a thing. It is no wonder that Democrats, by and large, tend to attract those people who are most underserved by the GOP. In the 2016 election, according to CNN exit polls, over three-quarters of LGBTQ voters went for Hillary Clinton as opposed to Donald Trump. Granted, some of that disparity may have been fueled by Trump’s overall repugnance, but when other members of the Republican Party seem more concerned about legislating who can and can’t pee in certain bathrooms than serving their constituents on matters of importance, the Democratic Party seems like an obvious choice by comparison.

Talking about diversity along the lines of clearly observable traits like skin color, however, potentially ignores other ways by which diversity can manifest. Namely diversity of opinion. While Democrats have done well to encourage diversity along demographic lines—even though besting the modern-day Republican Party is evidently not a high bar to clear—it is the diversity of opinion aspect which continues to plague the party more than a year since Bernie Sanders bowed out of a surprisingly contentious Democratic Party presidential primary. Establishment Democrats continue to try to keep a firm grasp on the reins guiding the party as the 2018 midterms fast approach, and as 2020 remains in everyone’s sights with a raving, Tweeting lunatic in the White House.

Meanwhile, liberal progressives who want to push the Dems further left find themselves between a rock and a hard place—they can insist on reform within the Democratic Party and get met with stern resistance, or they can lend their support to third parties and independents and essentially accede to electoral also-ran status in the short term. In the case of Sanders, who ran for President as a Democrat and caucuses with the Dems, but still identifies as an independent, he has been very vocal about the need for the Democrats to embrace a more progressive shift and to adopt a 50-state strategy which taps into authentic grass-roots energy rather than catering to big-money donors in a way that makes the party’s strategy look remarkably similar to that of the Republican Party’s. For his trouble, Bernie continues to be ostracized by the establishment wing of the party, especially by those who blame him personally for Clinton’s loss in the general election. As they would have you believe, Sanders was like some mad Pied Piper playing songs of discontent that planted bad seeds in the heads of young voters. He seduced our kids with promises of free college and health care! He’s not to be trusted!

In other words, rather than make the kind of party-wide reforms that they would seemingly need to counteract the losses they’ve experienced not only at the presidential and congressional levels, but in state houses across the country, the Democrats seem content to wait for Donald Trump and the Republican Party to cannibalize each other so they can waltz in and claim the lion’s share of the votes, aided by the American people’s frustration with (or downright embarrassment of) the GOP. This may not be an altogether poor strategy, I concede—at least in the short term. As discontentment grows within the voting population, though, and as income and wealth inequality further drive a wedge between the top earners and the rest of us plebeians, any gains enjoyed relative to the Republicans may eventually evaporate. While still a slender minority within the voting bloc, some of those who cast their ballots in the 2016 election went from a vote for Barack Obama in 2012 to a vote for Trump, likely fueled by concerns about socioeconomic status and the changing face of America among working-class individuals. Given the closeness of that race, and the concentration of this brand of voter in key battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, it’s not an entirely insignificant slender minority, either.

Now that I’ve set the scene, let’s discuss the recent decision of Chelsea Manning to announce her candidacy for U.S. Senate in the state of Maryland and oppose Benjamin Cardin in a Democratic primary. Manning should be a recognizable name to most, even those who follow politics and national/world news only casually. Prior to her gender transition, Chelsea Manning, as you probably know, was Bradley Manning, a serviceman in the United States Army. Manning, based on her circumstances and where she was stationed, was afforded access to potentially sensitive diplomatic and military communications between the United States and other nations. Secretly, she copied the contents of these cables and other information and went to the Washington Post and New York Times with what she downloaded, though representatives from both publications appeared uninterested in what Manning had to offer.

WikiLeaks, meanwhile, was not only interested in this material, but very willing to release it for all to see. What ensued over multiple releases, and eventually aided by the Post, the Times, Der Spiegel, and other publications, was the revelation of diplomatic cables, videos, and other salient media through WikiLeaks, helping in large part to put Julian Assange and Co. on the map, so to speak. This material painted quite a different picture of the Afghan War, Guantanamo Bay, and the Iraq War than the U.S. government was selling, not to mention it made public numerous views expressed by American diplomats, often unflattering ones about foreign countries and their leaders. For her service to the country as a whistleblower, Chelsea Manning was widely lauded across the United States. Kidding! Manning was charged with 22 offenses and was detained at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico in harsh conditions, including solitary confinement. She would be found guilty of 17 of the 22 charges, though being acquitted of aiding the enemy, a capital offense, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. After serving some six years of her sentence, though, and after appeals from human rights activists, petition signers, and on her own behalf, President Obama commuted all but four months of Manning’s remaining sentence. To this day, Manning remains a controversial figure, not merely because of her gender transition. On both sides of the political aisle, people regard her as a criminal and a traitor, and someone who should be jailed or worse for what she did.

Especially noting his status as an incumbent, it seems likely that Ben Cardin will retain his seat in the Senate, or at least capture the Democratic Party nomination. As famed journalist Glenn Greenwald tells in a piece for The Intercept, however, moderate Democrats are going out of their way to try to subvert Chelsea Manning’s bid for the Dems’ nod. In doing so, while Greenwald supposes that it’s the party’s prerogative to play favorites as it would—Bernie Sanders supporters, you don’t even have to say it—once more, Democratic leadership is missing a chance to inspire enthusiasm within its base (especially the trans community) in favor of keeping a centrist in power. The thrust of Greenwald’s article relies on an assessment of Cardin’s legacy as a U.S. Senator that is none too flattering:

Manning’s opponent in the Democratic Party primary is one of the most standard, banal, typical, privileged, and mediocre politicians in the U.S. Congress: Benjamin Cardin, a 74-year-old white, straight man who is seeking his third six-year Senate term. Cardin’s decades-long career as a politician from the start has been steeped in unearned privilege: He first won elective office back in 1966, when his uncle, Maurice Cardin, gave up his seat in order to bequeath it to his nephew Benjamin. With this dynastic privilege as his base, he has spent the last 50 years climbing the political ladder in Maryland.

Greenwald also notes that “Cardin has remarkably few achievements for being in Congress so many years.” Oof. So, why would the Democratic Party want someone like Cardin in office when he is apparently so ineffectual as a lawmaker? Dude’s a big supporter of Israel. Big supporter. In fact, he sponsored a bill in the summer of 2017 that would’ve made it a felony to support a boycott of Israel, a move that raised the ire of First Amendment defenders and even caused other Democratic senators to distance themselves from this legislation which targets the BDS Movement, a pro-Palestinian group devoted to divestment from, boycotting, and sanctions of Israeli interests as a protest against what it perceives as Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people, and a controversial entity—if it can even be called that—in its own right. While the Republican Party is keen on its end to appeal to the pro-Israel crowd, particularly fervent Zionists with deep pockets, Democrats have their own rich Jewish donors to appease. It is perhaps no wonder that centrist members of the party favor the centrist Cardin, one of the most devoted backers of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in his bid for re-election.

Again, as Glenn Greenwald and others view these matters, Benjamin Cardin may be the more “reasonable” or safer pick compared to Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman who was convicted of numerous crimes related to the WikiLeaks releases, and someone who has struggled with her identity and mental health issues—at least as far as moderate Democrats are concerned. How they’re going about their character assassination of Manning now that she’s entered the political fray, however, is where things go off the rails. Those are my words, not Greenwald’s, but I’m sure he’d agree. So, what’s wrong with Ms. Manning? She’s apparently a Russian stooge, who is being used by the Kremlin to try take down Cardin, someone with a real ax to grind on the issue of Russian meddling in our elections and political affairs in general (Cardin introduced the legislation that would serve as the basis of the sanctions package levied against Russia, and just recently released a report as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff detailing Vladimir Putin’s long-standing assault on democracy and recommending policy changes to help safeguard the country from future outside attacks). No, seriously. Evidently, Manning is hailed as some sort of hero in Russia, and because of this, she must necessarily be a tool in the decline of American political institutions. Citing the views expressed/retweeted by Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that is no stranger to controversy thanks in large part to its list of donors which has been all but transparent, Greenwald reacts thusly:

This conspiracy theory mocks itself. The idea that Vladimir Putin sat in the Kremlin, steaming over Cardin’s report on Russia and thus, developed a dastardly plot to rid himself of his daunting Maryland nemesis — “I know how to get rid of Cardin: I’ll have a trans woman who was convicted of felony leaking run against him!” — is too inane to merit any additional ridicule. But this is the climate in Washington: No conspiracy theory is too moronic, too demented, too self-evidently laughable to disqualify its advocates from being taken seriously — as long as it involves accusations that someone is a covert tool of the Kremlin. That’s why the president of the leading Democratic think tank feels free to spread this slanderous trash.

Let me stress that I do not wish to make it seem as though Russian interference in American affairs is a trivial matter, or that it did not have an impact on the 2016 election. That said, I believe there are limits to how far we can take the “Russia as bogeyman” theory; even within the context of the election, there were a myriad number of contributing factors to Hillary’s loss, not the least of which were the ones that were in her and her campaign’s control. In this regard, the Chelsea Manning as Russian agent narrative strains the bounds of credulity. As Greenwald also suggests, that this specific type of anti-Chelsea Manning backlash was so immediate and widespread is troubling in just how committed (and coordinated) centrist Democrats are to undermining the chances of challengers to the status quo—however small these chances may be.


Glenn Greenwald’s outlining of a somewhat surprisingly well-oiled Chelsea Manning smear campaign is all well and entertaining (it would be more entertaining if it weren’t so disappointing about the Democrats, but that’s life, eh?), but the conspiracy theory and his rebuttals to the apparent backlash his article has received are ancillary to a larger point: that the Democrats like to play “identity politics” when it suits them until someone threatens the centrist order—and then all bets are off. Going back to the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders binary I briefly alluded to earlier, the Democratic Party establishment essentially did everything but formally state it was backing Hill-Dawg in the primary, including but not limited to giving her a decided head start in pledged delegates thanks to superdelegates—the likes of which are very unsuper, as far as liberal progressives are concerned—and the whole favoritism on the part of the Democratic National Committee that was made public by way of the DNC leaks, another WikiLeaks release. In this instance, mainline Democrats’ characterization of Sanders supporters is/was that they are a bunch of misogynists (see also “Bernie Bros.”) and/or that they are violent and disorderly (see also the “Nevada Democratic Convention”). Realistically, though, this speaks to a minority of “Bernie-crats.” It’s like saying James T. Hodgkinson, the man who shot at several Republican congressmen while they attended a baseball practice, is indicative of the progressive movement as a whole. These notions are as disingenuous as they are exaggerated.

In the case of Chelsea Manning, the attempts from those on the left to put her down are particularly egregious because she belongs to a minority that is no stranger to abuse and ridicule: the transgender community. As swift as censure of news Manning’s bid for a U.S. Senate seat was from centrist Dems, so too did admonishment erupt from naysayers on the right, alternatively pointing to Manning being a “criminal” or “traitor,” or simply lampooning the idea that a trans woman would identify as a Democrat and deriding the values and views of liberals as a whole. As I would contend, centrist Democrats don’t need to add fuel to the proverbial fire by joining in with the conservative outcry against Manning, and as Greenwald would contend, they are missing the opportunity to celebrate a candidate who would make history by being the first trans woman in the Senate, as well as to inspire other young trans Americans and to help erase the stigma that trans people face worldwide. Either way, it’s bad optics for a party that preaches the virtues of diversity, which I consider to be a major advantage it has over the GOP, an association which has made anyone who isn’t a white, straight male like Ben Cardin a lesser-than or potential target for hate and violence.

The most legitimate objection to Chelsea Manning’s candidacy for office, as I see it, is that she is young and inexperienced. After all, Donald Trump had never held a public office, and look at how that is turning out. Then again, Al Franken didn’t have experience in this regard, and if not for his resignation, he would still be serving as senator from the great state of Minnesota. Barack Obama was also relatively unproven prior to his inauguration, but if not a great president, he certainly wasn’t abysmal, and to this day is well respected by Americans and the international community alike. Manning, meanwhile, has used her high profile to raise awareness not only about issues facing the trans community and other whistleblowers, but other pertinent topics facing the American electorate, including the conditions of prisons in the United States, the plight of refugees worldwide, protecting civil liberties in the wake of acts of terrorism, and how marriage equality is not the be-all and end-all of the LGBT movement. Thus, while she is untested, she is by no means uninformed, and would likely make as good if not a better representative for her prospective constituents than Sen. Cardin.

According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, Americans’ faith in political institutions is decidedly low, with just 8% of Americans polled expressing a great deal of confidence in Congress, and the Republican Party next on the list at a scant 10%. But the media doesn’t fare much better (11%), nor does the Democratic Party (13%), and the only institution in the survey that inspires confidence from a majority of Americans is the military. The character assassination from both sides of the political aisle of Chelsea Manning and the all-too-likely scenario of Benjamin Cardin recapturing his Senate seat playing out don’t help these trends. It may be 2018, but at least to start the year, it’s politics as usual in Washington.

Do Progressives Have a Seat at the Democrats’ Table?

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Tom Perez may be progressive like Keith Ellison and may have grass-roots appeal. But as the establishment wing of the Democratic Party’s pick to neutralize Ellison as a figurehead of the “Sanders wing” of the party and someone with more a nuanced view of Israel’s role in the Middle East, his victory in the race for DNC chair is symbolic of the notion that the Democrats don’t want to jeopardize their big-dollar donors by bringing in more progressives and younger voters. In doing so, however, they risk damage to their sense of party unity and the ability to recruit independents to their cause. (Photo Credit: AP Photo)

Don’t get me wrong—Tom Perez, the newly-elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, seems like a nice enough guy, not to mention that as Hillary Clinton’s nomination for the office of President of the United States was an historic one because it meant that a woman was a presidential nominee for a major political party for the first time, so too is Perez’s victory in that he holds the distinction of being the first Latino DNC chair in the party’s storied history. Also as with Clinton’s capture of the nomination, once more, the emphasis from ranking members of the Democratic Party and from its most fervent supporters is on a unified party as the best way to defeat Donald Trump and other Republicans in Congress and down the ticket. Unfortunately, much in the way tensions between factions in the Democratic Party have lingered related to the presidential race and behind-the-scenes machinations of the Democratic National Committee, so too does a power play within the party related to the DNC vote threaten to undermine this call to arms and further sow the seeds of division among registered Democrats and would-be Democratic voters. Along these lines, and in short, when it comes to the notion of whether or not the Democratic Party has learned anything from its pattern of losses in the Senate and House and gubernatorial seats, aside from the obvious in their electoral loss to Trump this past November, the apparent answer is no, and it begs the question: will it anytime soon?

Let’s first step back and look at the particulars of the vote itself. Though there were other qualified candidates for the position of DNC chair on the ballot, so to speak, this was essentially a two-horse race between Tom Perez, the Obama administration’s pick to fill the vacancy left by Donna Brazile, who would not be continuing in her capacity as interim chair after Debbie Wasserman Schultz essentially left the post in disgrace, and Keith Ellison, backed by Bernie Sanders, prominent Democrats, various labor organizations, and more progressive members of the party. Perez missed the necessary majority of 214.5 votes (427 were cast) in the first round of voting by a scant one vote, requiring a second round of voting. In that second round, he was able to officially outlast Ellison to 235 to 200. Suffice it to say the vote was a close one, but what did not appear to be close was the enthusiasm behind the candidates, at least from those in attendance there in Atlanta where the vote took place. Jonathan Easley, writing for The Hill as part of a live blog about the proceedings, had this to say about Keith Ellison’s level of support:

It is clear who has the energy here. Ellison’s supporters are loud and in charge and erupting at every chance. “Don’t mourn organize!,” declared Ellison backer and labor leader Randi Weingarten to an outburst of shouts and applause. Minnesota Democratic leader Ken Martin followed, noting that Ellison’s district has gone from the lowest turnout in the state to the highest. “This party is going to rise from the ashes under Keith Ellison,” he said, turning out another standing ovation.

Like Perez, Ellison stressed unity. “Unity is essential, we have to walk out here unified, not just between the candidates but the groups that support all the candidates,” Ellison said. But if Ellison doesn’t win his enthusiastic supporters are going to be extremely let down.

As with Bernie Sanders’ concession of the nomination to Hillary Clinton, needless to say they were let down, as I was. I’m not sure that they were all that surprised, though. I sure wasn’t. This is the Democratic Party we’re talking about here, an organization primarily devoted to fundraising, and only secondarily to change, which it sees fit to dole out incrementally. Back in December, I wrote a piece devoted to the very topic of Keith Ellison’s bid for DNC chair, detailing why voting committee members may not have supported the representative from the state of Minnesota, and surmising that, despite the enthusiasm behind his campaign and endorsements from key political figures, Democrats may well pick someone other than Ellison because, well, they’ve made a habit of making poor decisions lately and getting behind the wrong candidates. About a month-and-a-half removed from the election, the complete list of people running for the top post in the Democratic National Committee had yet to be fully formed, and wounds from the presidential campaign and election were still fairly fresh. At that time, resistance to Keith Ellison’s designs to be DNC chair seemed strongest from those resenting his identity as a Bernie backer, with those vowing to vote for anyone but him dining on the faulty notion that Sanders cost Clinton the election. (Primarily, Hillary lost herself the election, though it was a complex mix of factors that lay behind the Dems’ electoral demise in November.) If the old standby about party unity above all else was a genuinely-held sentiment, come February when the vote was scheduled to take place, these frustrations had a chance to be brought down to a simmer and more people could conceivably have warmed to the idea of Keith Ellison as Donna Brazile’s/Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s successor.

A little over two months later, though, with the race for DNC chair having run its course and more candidates having entered the fray, the apparent reasons for Committee members to bypass Ellison in favor of someone else are yet more insidious and no less galling to progressives and younger Democratic voters. Keith Ellison announced his candidacy for Democratic National Committee chair on November 14, 2016, and pledged to forfeit his seat in the House of Representatives if elected on December 7. On December 15,  Secretary of Labor Tom Perez announced his candidacy, endorsed by the likes of Joe Biden and other Obama administration figures. Why do I mention these details concerning the chronology of the race for DNC chair? As Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Intercept, argues, “the timeline here is critical.” Greenwald, who has written more than one piece on the resistance Ellison faced as a candidate to head the DNC, asks not why Perez ran, but knowingly questions why the White House recruited Perez to oppose Ellison. His analysis, as he himself readily acknowledges, owes a certain debt to an article authored by Clio Chang for New Republic, which tries to make sense of choosing Tom Perez in the first place. After all, if Keith Ellison and Tom Perez are ideologically similar, why bother actively trying to torpedo the chances of the former to buoy those of the latter?

The distinction between the two candidates, as Greenwald and Chang detail, is a two-headed monster in it of itself. The first, er, head is found in the death grip the Democratic Party establishment has evidenced it wants to maintain on leadership of and, thus, direction of the party at large. Clio Chang explains:

It appears that the underlying reason some Democrats prefer Perez over Ellison has nothing to do with ideology, but rather his loyalty to the Obama wing. As the head of the DNC, Perez would allow that wing to retain more control, even if Obama-ites are loath to admit it. Sanders has been accused of re-litigating the primary in his criticisms of Perez, but the fact that Perez was pushed to run, while Ellison was quickly and easily unifying the left and center, seems like the move most predicated on primary scars.

In reasoning out the conflict that manifested in the form of the split between supporters of Ellison and Perez, Chang diminishes the “progressive vs. establishment” narrative that has been spun by various outside sources trying to fashion a frame of reference for their audiences, in favor of depicting the struggle as a power struggle. Barack Obama and others high up on the Democratic Party food chain were uneasy about giving Keith Ellison and his less-moderate supporters too much control. This is almost unquestionably related to the antagonistic attitude Ellison and his main man Bernie Sanders have taken against big-ticket donations and highly-paid consultants. The Democrats may view themselves as morally superior to their counterparts in the Republican Party, but on the subject of money, they are all but addicted to mega-bucks fundraisers and wealthy patrons much as the GOP is. Chang connects this resistance among the Democratic elite to grassroots organizing and fundraising to a similar battle fought over the simultaneous existence of the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots fundraising creation from his initial campaign. Ultimately, the DNC absorbed this separate organization, and as Chang highlights, critics of the move blame it in part for the string of losses the Dems have suffered since Obama was first sworn in. The Democratic Party seems expressly averse to a reliance on bottom-up change and small donations, and a separate resolution by those voting Committee members at the festivities in Atlanta against a ban on corporate donations to the DNC exhibits this attitude perfectly.

Glenn Greenwald, meanwhile, while he acknowledges the White House’s role in thwarting Keith Ellison’s hopes to be DNC chair, also sees a more reprehensible dimension to his opposition, and from additional parties as well. Ellison, as you may well know, is the first Muslim to serve as a member of Congress. In the past, all the way back to his days as a college student, he expressed support for the likes of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, before reversing his position on them and condemning their anti-Semitic positions. This personal history of Ellison’s, while it could be and was used as fodder against him politically, was not enough to disqualify him in the minds of DNC voting members. His attitudes on Israel, however, break with the mainstream bipartisan lip service that the United States government pays to our chief ally in the Middle East. At first glance, the combination looks bad. A Muslim—waxing philosophical about our relationship with Istael—oy vey! In all seriousness, though, and in reality, Ellison’s past commentary on U.S.-Israel relations is relatively benign, all things considered. By a sizable margin, Israel receives the most aid of any foreign nation from the U.S., mostly in the form of training and weaponry for use by the Israeli Defense Forces. Keith Ellison, like any number of other critics, is justified in wondering why we shower Israel with money when they aggressively pursue the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and disputed territory in East Jerusalem against the consensus within the international community. To this end, why do we kowtow to Israel at the expense of our relationship with much of the Arab and Muslim world?

As you might have guessed with respect to these questions and in general, where there’s money, there’s an answer. Keith Ellison, because he appears more amenable to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and because he is not more staunchly pro-Israel, is at odds with wealthy Jewish patrons who possess strong ties to the upper ranks of the Democratic Party. In particular, billionaire Haim Saban, the foremost donor to the Democratic Party and both Hillary and Bill Clinton’s campaigns, demonstrably labeled Ellison an anti-Semite and an anti-Israel individual, and the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization Greenwald slyly quips is ironically named in this instance, saw fit to chime in with their reservations about Ellison and his views on Israel. Their combined influence and lobbying translates to considerable power in Democratic Party circles, and since we know the Democrats can’t get enough of big, fat campaign contributions, they are inapt to risk such important sources of revenue. The result was character assassination at its finest of Keith Ellison leading up to the chair vote. Coming from members of a group that identifies itself as the “chosen people,” it would seem the Jews pulling the strings are quite choosy themselves.

Whether seeing the progressive challenger with rabid support on the left as something of a nuisance or an outright threat, as with attempts to deep-six Bernie Sanders’ chances to capture the presidential nomination for the Democrats by discrediting him or showing favoritism to Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate, the smear campaign against Keith Ellison by people and organizations close to the Democratic Party alongside the power play made by the Obama White House in the first place to prop up Tom Perez betrays an unwillingness to authentically embrace party members and supporters more to the left on the political spectrum, often coinciding with younger entrants into the field. What’s more, in all likelihood, both moves were patently unnecessary on the part of those scheming to influence the final result. Going back to the primary race and clear evidence of bias in favor of Clinton on the part of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Donna Brazile, and others involved with the Democratic National Committee, as revealed by Wikileaks’ DNC leaks, for all their machinations, Hillary was almost certainly going to capture the nomination. Sanders did provide a spirited challenge for the bid, but Clinton had the support of superdelegates before the race even began, not to mention entrenched, loyal support elsewhere. In the case of Ellison and Perez, meanwhile, the thing that is perplexing to many is the notion the DNC chair is, as Glenn Greenwald describes it, “a largely functionary position, with little real power over party policy or messaging.” As Clio Chang helps buttress this notion, the role of chair is designed to help win elections by increasing turnout and facilitating small-dollar donations, and Ellison is well-experienced in this regard. But apparently, his progressive base of support is neither allowed by the Democrats to have its cake, nor is it allowed to eat it. And, if we’re sticking with the whole birthday party analogy, they are being asked to clean up afterwards, not be petty, and unite. For the good of the party.

All this chicanery, it can be argued, is detrimental to the Democratic Party’s ability to strengthen its base, particularly among younger voters and independents. The DNC’s bias in favor of Hillary Clinton only fueled sentiments that the primaries were “rigged” against Bernie Sanders, serving to erode confidence in a Democratic vote that was already shaky to begin with given Clinton’s scandal-dotted past. Now, with Tom Perez capturing the post of DNC chair over Keith Ellison despite the latter’s enthusiastic following, this fuels the whispers among Sanders supporters that something truly iniquitous has occurred, and in turn, that the Dems don’t really want them at the adults’ table, so to speak. It certainly didn’t help perception matters when, as noted in the Jonathan Easley live blog, the electronic recording devices initially planned on being used to record the chair vote were scrapped in favor of a paper balloting system mid-stream under the pretense that the devices were vulnerable to manipulation and thus unreliable. Then why even have them there at the event in the first place? This just makes it appear as if there is something to hide, a notion not lost on the Ellison supporters in attendance.

Tom Perez may be well suited to serve in his current capacity as DNC chair, and almost certainly will end his tenure on a higher note than either Debbie Wasserman Schultz or Donna Brazile did. Keith Ellison, because he is loyal to the Democratic Party, will soldier on as deputy chair, lending his support serving in a role that is seemingly of even less consequence than the chair itself. Once more, the Democratic Party brass has evidenced it is resistant to change, unwilling to move away from a moderate position, and that it simply doesn’t understand the American electorate—or doesn’t want to. Conceived of in different terms, it is playing not to lose, hoping its distinctiveness from Donald Trump and the regressive politics of the Republican Party are enough to win it back seats all the way up the levels of government. As sports fans can attest to, however, playing not to lose rarely is a sound strategy, especially when you’re already losing. The Democrats haven’t learned anything from their recent electoral defeats, and as the old saw goes that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, their prospects for 2018 and 2020 already look bleak.

Islamophobia, by Any Other Name

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Hi! I’m Sam Harris! I think the Muslim ban was a bad idea but I also think Islam is a primitive and evil religion! Try to reconcile that! (Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

As I’m sure you’re aware, on the evening of January 29, in Quebec City, a 27-year-old man named Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec mosque and started firing. By the end, six men were killed, with others injured, and the next day, Bissonnette was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder with a restricted weapon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to condemn the attack as a terrorist act and one of cowardice on the part of the assailant, and authorities and Canadian citizens alike called for a spirit of inclusivity and togetherness in the wake of the violence. While mass shootings have become regrettably almost run-of-the-mill in America, mass shootings in Canada have been relatively sparse.

Within the United States, however, for a number of vocal Trump supporters during the early confusion of details filtering down from Quebec, the attack on the Centre Culturel Islamique was Exhibit A as to why the recently-enacted “Muslim ban” is not only advisable, but patently necessary. Initial reports identified two suspects in connection with the shooting, one of whom was Mohamed Belkhadir, a 29-year-old engineering student originally from Morocco. The jingoists among us, eager to fly the Stars and Stripes at first notice of an exclusionary narrative onto which to latch, were likely already foaming at the mouth at mention of the name “Mohamed,” and news of Belkhadir’s connection with the crime just sent them over the top. See, this is why we don’t want to let refugees from Muslim nations into the country! There’s too great a danger! You never know when ISIS might be lurking around the corner! Bear in mind Morocco isn’t one of the countries specified in President Trump’s ban on immigration, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good argument, shall we?

Except for the eventual revelation Mohamed Belkhadir was not actually a suspect in the mosque attack, but a witness. Oops! According to reports, Belkhadir was trying to administer first aid to a friend and fled to the cultural center’s parking lot when he saw someone with a gun, not knowing that person was a cop. Indeed, the search for a narrative and the desire to run with it led to a hasty presumption based on unconfirmed information and betrayed a series of arguments predicated on racial and xenophobic prejudice. What’s more, regarding the person of Alexandre Bissonnette, a synopsis of various media sources by Manisha Krishnan, writing for VICE, paints a picture of the Laval University student that might easily be recognized stateside as well as in Canada. According to these reports, he is a loner, a subscriber to right-wing views, a xenophobe, someone who displays misogynistic tendencies and trolls a Facebook group for refugees, is a white nationalist, and—to top it all off—is a fan of Donald Trump and his policies. Oops, again! While I personally might balk at the idea that Bissonnette is one of the Trump Train lot, as, ahem, not every Trump supporter is a mass murderer, that Bissonnette would seem to be an admirer of the President’s puts an almost ironic twist on the quick finger pointed at the Muslim world wholesale by those espousing similar right-wing views.

There are any number of striking things about this example of brutality. Certainly, the idea that Donald Trump’s influence translates into French Canada and abroad may startle, though the rise of white nationalism is certainly not limited to Trump; Alexandre Bissonnette is also said to be an admirer of France’s Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party has gained popularity by adopting a similar anti-immigrant stance. What also grabs the attention, however, at least for yours truly, is statistical information regarding all Canadians’ attitudes toward Muslims. Justin Trudeau, either because he’s being diplomatic, he truly believes it, or both, has, in the wake of the mosque attack, consistently preached the country’s support for the Canadian Muslim community and solidarity with the population. Personal views, meanwhile, tend to vary. Alyssa Favreau, a Montreal-based writer, connects the Quebec shooting to a rising sea of anti-Muslim sentiment.

As Favreau notes within the piece, police-reported hate crimes against Muslims more than doubled in Canada from 2012 to 2014, and the raw number (99) stands to be much larger because the majority of these crimes go unreported. What’s more, the attitudes of average Canadians toward Islam on the whole speak to a vague apprehension about the religion and its practitioners. A 2015 survey by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that, despite about half of respondents having reservations about organized religions in general, a significantly higher percentage of those surveyed said they felt more uncomfortable about someone wearing a hijab as opposed to one wearing a cross. As for the Canadian population as a whole, based on a Forum Poll (Canada’s leading public opinion service) survey, more than a quarter of respondents had unfavorable feelings about Muslims. In other words, if Trudeau’s sentiments conveyed the sense some sort of love-fest exists in his country for followers of Islam, evidence points to the contrary.

In the United States, meanwhile, according to a report by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and the director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, just under half of respondents across a composite of four polls during the election year disapproved of Islam on the whole; the approval rate for Muslim people fared yet better, with 70% of respondents viewing this subset of the population in a positive light, as opposed to 28% surveyed viewing Muslims in a negative light as of October 2016. This actually marks an improvement on these ratings since November 2015, and in spite of the salience of events like the Orlando shooting. As Telhami instructs, the upward trend in pro-Muslim leanings is almost exclusively attributable to changing views among Democrats and independents, and may well be a reaction to Donald Trump’s divisive actions and rhetoric. While the direction of this trend may be surprising, the source seems less so. After all, we would expect more liberal-oriented respondents to more readily embrace Islam and those who practice the faith.

If American views of Islam and Muslims are on the upswing, and even though progressives would like to see improvement on the dimensions governed by the polls interpreted by Shibley Telhami and his associates, it is therefore somewhat troubling to have people who would more readily identify with the left espousing views that mischaracterize Islam. By and large, I appreciate the comedy of Bill Maher, and while I may not agree with all of his positions on key issues, I have a certain degree of respect for the man. His stances on Islam and Muslims, on the other hand, I patently disagree with, and his embrace of fringe theories about this religion is not only arguably counterproductive, but potentially dangerous as well.

On a recent airing of his show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the namesake host featured a conversation with Sam Harris, author, cognitive neuroscientist, and co-founder of Project Reason, on the nature of Islam. Harris, no stranger to the program and notable for being a leader within what has been coined the New Atheist movement, had some choice words for the Muslim world and those liberals who support them. According to Sam Harris, “the left has allied itself with Islamists and closet Islamists,” and while on one hand, he and Bill Maher reject the merits of the Muslim ban, he had this to say about criticisms from left-leaners of others possessing Islamophobic tendencies: “You don’t have to be a fascist or a racist or even a Trumpian to not want to import people into your society who think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet.” Maher was quick to chime in at one point on this broad subject, condemning comparisons made between Islamist terrorist groups and the Ku Klux Klan, saying dismissively, “The KKK is not seeking nuclear weapons.” Um, bully for them then?

Both Sam Harris and Bill Maher, in discussing Muslims and Islam in this way, appear to be making a fundamental error. Harris, making a sweeping generalization, evidently believes all Muslims and refugees from countries where the predominant faith is Islam think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet Muhammad or otherwise representing them in a less-than-holy light, when realistically, this is a hallmark of radical or ultra-conservative Muslims, and not necessarily your everyday followers. As for Maher, he makes the distinction between the Ku Klux Klan and various Islamist groups, as if to say, “See? What did I tell you about Islam!” If saying the KKK doesn’t want nukes is your primary defense of this group, though, it’s a bit of splitting proverbial hairs, no? It’s like saying Donald Trump isn’t Hitler because he hasn’t tried to exterminate the Jews. That’s really a cold comfort, and besides, dude’s still got ample time in his first 100 days and Stephen Bannon the Skeleton King pouring poison into his ear. In either case, Harris and Maher are conflating the work of jihadists with that of rank-and-file Muslims, and such discourse not only seems to be steeped in faulty logic, but potentially is dangerous given the national voice these figures possess.

Sadly, this is nothing new for either man. Though a bit dated by Internet standards, Salon in 2015 compiled a compendium of Bill Maher’s “greatest hits” on Islam, which includes references to Muslims’ beliefs as “pernicious,” the Koran as a “hate-filled holy book,” and to Islam itself not being a religion of peace. As for Sam Harris, Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the best journalist you’ve never heard of, penned a lengthy op-ed about Harris and other New Atheists on “anti-Muslim animus” back in 2013. I know—positively ancient, right? And yet, not much seems to have changed or evolved within Harris’s world view since. Greenwald acknowledges Sam Harris’s antipathy toward organized religion as a whole (Bill Maher, though not an avowed atheist, is like-minded in his distaste for organized religion and its more deleterious effects), but notes how Harris, for lack of better phrasing, has a hard-on for Islam and those that worship in accordance with its precepts. From the essay:

The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”

This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that “we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” He has also decreed that “this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.” “We”—the civilized peoples of the west—are at war with “millions” of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between “civilized” people and Muslims: “All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.”

This isn’t “quote-mining”, the term evidently favored by Harris and his defenders to dismiss the use of his own words to make this case. To the contrary, I’ve long ago read the full context of what he has written and did so again yesterday. […] Yes, he criticizes Christianity, but he reserves the most intense attacks and superlative condemnations for Islam, as well as unique policy prescriptions of aggression, violence and rights abridgments aimed only at Muslims. As the atheist scholar John L Perkins wrote about Harris’ 2005 anti-religion book: “Harris is particularly scathing about Islam.”

The larger significance of these kinds of attitudes, as Glenn Greenwald sees things, is that this thinking can be used to justify all sorts of aggression, human rights abuses, and violence against Muslims, the kinds of acts to which rights activists independent of political affiliation strongly object. They include anti-Muslim profiling, state violence (i.e. liberals are “soft” on terrorism), support for Israel even in the face of international criticism, and torture. What’s more, whereas defenders of divisive behavior and rhetoric on the right might view this as justified based on vague ideas of Christian righteousness or outright racism and xenophobia, the foundation of New Atheism’s anti-Muslim sentiments is feelings and notions of a moral superiority. Sure, Sam Harris and his confederates might view their objections to Islam as more correct because they are not based on strict adherence to religious doctrine, but viewed in the context of secular morality and a battle of good versus evil, they are equally as insidious, if not more so. “They know not what they do”? Hardly. Harris and Company know exactly what they do—and that’s the point.

As Glenn Greenwald frames his arguments, then, Bill Maher’s and Sam Harris’s wholesale character assassination of Islam fits in all-too-nicely with a generalized American and Western condemnation of the Muslim world, and a tendency to side with our own interests even when they may be seen as wrong. Greenwald describes the problem with Harris’s denigration of Muslims and Islam quite succinctly:

Harris’ self-loving mentality amounts to this: those primitive Muslims are so tribal for reflexively siding with their own kind, while I constantly tout the superiority of my own side and justify what We do against Them. […] He is at least as tribal, jingoistic, and provincial as those he condemns for those human failings, as he constantly hails the nobility of his side while demeaning those Others.

As Sam Harris and other New Atheists would have it, the end game of Islam is to convert everyone to the faith, politically subjugate those who don’t convert, or kill those who stand in the way. Otherwise, the assumptions they make about the way Muslims think are based not on factual observation or rational, intellectual inferences, but rather a spirit grounded in religious or “tribal” attitudes—and if we really want to get down to brass tacks, this liberal Islamophobia is pretty much a religion in of itself. So much for that whole “no religion” bit.


It’s one thing for educated folks like Bill Maher and Sam Harris to sneer at the section of right-wing America that, to paraphrase Barack Obama’s infamous quote, clings to its Bibles, its guns, and its resentment against the foreign and the unfamiliar. It’s quite another, however, for their likes to convey an elitist tone and deride the Muslim ban as an obvious poor choice while they, in the same breath, denigrate Muslims and what they believe. So, while Maher, Harris and other non-believers/agnostics may thumb their noses at those who get caught up in matters of sectarian conflict, looking down at the rigidity of organized religions from atop their high horses, by painting Islam and Muslims with broad, largely negative strokes, they are no better than the Americans who, say, argue Muslims are a danger to the United States because they want nothing more than to make sharia law the supreme law of the land and subvert our existing statutes in the name of Allah.

Speaking of which, on that last note, in another one of those quasi-ironic twists that I seem to love these days, if anything is liable to bring religiously-motivated laws into a position of greater influence and effect, it is not Muslims, but the man behind the ban himself, President Donald Trump. Alongside plotting a gutting of the Dodd-Frank Act, a piece of legislation crafted in direct response to the irresponsible banking, lending and other regulatory practices which led to the global financial crisis almost a decade ago, Trump vowed recently to destroy the Johnson Amendment, which effectively bars churches from making political contributions, and thus, is an important aspect of the separation of church and state in the United States. Evidently, and in short, Trump, his cronies, and Republicans who aid and abet him in terrible policy-making are content to let the financial industry and religious organizations alike run amok. As many of us may reason, they might as well. You know, after confirming the likes of Rex Tillerson, a man who has ties to Vladimir Putin and who until recently helmed a company that dealt with countries considered state sponsors of terrorism, and Betsy DeVos, whose millions of dollars of political contributions somehow are supposed to count for a complete lack of competence and experience, there’s almost nowhere to go but up. Almost.

What we don’t need, therefore, returning our focus to the topic of anti-Muslim sentiment, is more noise from individuals professing to uphold science and intellectualism but instead giving way to beliefs that smack of white ethnocentrism and are reliant on a warped understanding of a religion practiced by over a billion people worldwide. People like Sam Harris argue liberals are in bed with jihadists and others like Bill Maher feel political correctness holds us back from having an honest and open conversation about Islam and the Muslim world, and at worst, makes us “pussies.” Little do they realize, however, it is, to a considerable extent, their closed-mindedness which only fuels mutual misunderstanding between East and West and drives us all further apart.