Though I wouldn’t wish death on anyone, for the sake of George Herbert Walker Bush and his legacy, he “picked” a good time to die.
This time, of course, is an era in which Donald Trump is President of the United States and the effective leader of the Republican Party, and unrepentant obstructionist Mitch McConnell is the Senate Majority Leader (and yet has the gall to call for Democrats to put partisanship aside!). If we’re judging by modern standards—and by “standards,” I mean that which may be eroding before our very eyes—”George Bush Sr.” is preferable to the boorish and petty Trump, a man who would rather denounce LeBron James than neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.
Perhaps simply being better than Trump—not exactly hard, but the idea remains—isn’t the sole factor in Bush’s lionization. That is, the bipartisan praise he has received in passing probably reflects genuine admiration for the man. Looking back at his legacy through rose-colored glasses, however, arguably doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to Bush’s presidential record.
Indeed, as some tell it, Bush Sr.’s political past was a checkered one. In a well-considered post for The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan speaks to “the ignored legacy of George H.W. Bush,” one involving obstruction of justice, racism, and war crimes. Hasan frames his considerations as such:
In the age of Donald Trump, it isn’t difficult for hagiographers of the late Bush Sr. to paint a picture of him as a great patriot and pragmatist; a president who governed with “class” and “integrity.” It is true that the former president refused to vote for Trump in 2016, calling him a “blowhard,” and that he eschewed the white nationalist, “alt-right,” conspiratorial politics that has come to define the modern Republican Party. He helped end the Cold War without, as Obama said, “firing a shot.” He spent his life serving his country — from the military to Congress to the United Nations to the CIA to the White House. And, by all accounts, he was also a beloved grandfather and great-grandfather to his 17 grandkids and eight great-grandkids.
Nevertheless, he was a public, not a private, figure — one of only 44 men to have ever served as president of the United States. We cannot, therefore, allow his actual record in office to be beautified in such a brazen way. “When a political leader dies, it is irresponsible in the extreme to demand that only praise be permitted but not criticisms,” as my colleague Glenn Greenwald has argued, because it leads to “false history and a propagandistic whitewashing of bad acts.” The inconvenient truth is that the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush had far more in common with the recognizably belligerent, corrupt, and right-wing Republican figures who came after him — his son George W. and the current orange-faced incumbent — than much of the political and media classes might have you believe.
In writing these words, Hasan fairly notes that Bush had his good moments, as people do—but that we shouldn’t overlook his bad ones either, especially not given his influence as President of these United States.
For one, focusing on George H.W. Bush’s tenure as president ignores how he got there: namely, by using the racist trope of a black man attacking a white woman to appeal to voters’ fears and prejudices. A political ad sponsored by a PAC with ties to Bush’s campaign invoked Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who escaped a weekend furlough program in Massachusetts and raped a Maryland woman. By the logic of the commercial, Democrat Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts at the time, was to blame, and a later ad from the Bush campaign depicting criminals going through a “revolving door” struck a similar chord.
Bush dismissed the notion that the “Weekend Passes” ad in particular was racist, but today this would be roundly criticized by objective observers as one big dog-whistle playing on stereotypes of the black male criminal. Lee Atwater, who ran Bush’s campaign, even went as far as to apologize on his deathbed (Atwater died at age 40 from brain cancer) about the tactics used against Dukakis, which he characterized as an exercise in “naked cruelty.” Even if the idea to run this advertising didn’t originate with Bush, he signed off on it just the same.
Once Bush actually became Commander in Chief, there’s also the matter of how we justified our involvement in the first Gulf War. According to multiple investigative journalists familiar with the intelligence behind the military commitment in Iraq and Kuwait, we justified the use of military force there based on a fabricated, propagandized buildup of Iraqi troops threatening U.S. oil supplies on the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia border. And when we got there, oh the war crimes. Civilian casualties. Destruction of infrastructure used by civilians in an effort to gain leverage over Saddam Hussein.
Bush Sr. additionally did his part to continue and ramp up the war on drugs perpetuated by his predecessors. Here, too, was a largely fabricated situation—a young drug dealer was essentially set up by the White House so that Bush could use the arrest as a selling point for more spending on jails, prisons, and the like. All the while, his administration turned a largely deaf ear to the AIDS epidemic, fueled by adherence to ideology and misconceptions about the gay community. We may not have been bombing civilians in other countries, but here in America, the result was pretty much the same: more deaths and destroyed lives.
There are other points where #41 isn’t above reproach either. As vice president, he refused to cooperate with Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh in an investigation into the details of the Iran-Contra affair. There’s also the matter of his alleged groping of eight different women. As Hasan and others would therefore suggest, for all his ballyhooed “civility” and irrespective of how many first pitches and coin tosses in which he participated at sports contests (really, who cares?), George H.W. Bush has more in common with his son George W. Bush (see also going to war over faulty intelligence) and Donald Trump (see also groping, obstruction of justice) than his postmortem tributes will allow. It’s revisionist history, and a bad rewrite at that.
The treatment George Herbert Walker Bush and his legacy are getting is not unlike the hagiographic elevation John McCain received following his passing early this year. His military service, one-time defense of political opponent Barack Obama, and public rebukes of Trump overshadowed a legislative career that saw him vote in line with the current president in most cases and espouse the views of an unrepentant warmonger.
The unsavory elements of his presidential campaigning, notably selecting Sarah Palin as a running mate and unapologetically continuing to use a slur directed at Asians, likewise were glossed over by many journalists in the act of “celebrating his life.” A key aspect of that, no doubt, was the uncharacteristically robust access McCain and his campaign gave them while on the campaign trail. In an era when Trump is openly vilifying the press and aiming to restrict their privileges in covering White House business, McCain looks all the better by contrast. Is that good enough, though?
As for whether Bush was a “good man,” I can’t really say. On one hand, as Mehdi Hasan tells, he served his country dutifully and was a beloved patriarch. On the other hand, he engaged in obstruction of justice, propaganda campaigns to advance his agenda, race-baiting, and war crimes. It has oft been said that history is told by the winners. If Bush Sr.’s story were told by its victims, what would it look and sound like? What would the victims of the Gulf War say? Or the victims of the war on drugs? Or the people who have felt the ravages of HIV/AIDS? Are they remembering him so fondly? Does it matter that their voices are not so loud?
On that last note, it should. It’s great that people love their country and have respect for the office of President of the United States. It’s another to overlook their faults because of their outward civility, respect for the dead, or what-have-you. George H.W. Bush had his merits, but he was no saint. The same can be said for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and for that matter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
At the end of the day, these holders of the top political office in the land are human beings, flaws and all. In the name of demystifying the political process and telling hard truths, it’s time we stopped painting them in such a glorifying light.
When you are Donald Trump or one of his surrogates and regularly divorce cause and effect—or are simply divorced from reality—you are free to distort details and expel falsehoods to support your narrative. Though it has been repeatedly observed, it’s worth stressing that Trump started his presidential campaign spewing inaccuracies about Mexican people as criminals and rapists, without revealing any master plan to fix this “broken” immigration system. It was outrageous. It was reprehensible. What’s more, it worked.
Since then, Trump and Co. haven’t exactly gotten more accurate or presidential over time. While concern for the separation of immigrant families, how and where they’re being detained, and how and when—if at all—those already separated will be re-united have dominated headlines, the Trump administration hasn’t softened its rhetoric any. Outside of relenting on the issue of separating children from their mothers, President Trump has authorized the creation of a “denaturalization” task force, one that seeks to remove naturalized citizens on clerical or other “technicalities” and which has evoked comparisons to the Red Scare.
Critics of the White House’s immigration policy have taken to referring to it in rather dark terms, labeling it “ethnic cleansing.” They’re not wrong, either. Amid the elaboration of a white nationalist agenda which has seen senior advisor Stephen Miller and Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen emerge as figureheads of the ongoing crisis and, at that, perpetrators, Trump has engaged in more than his fair share of scaremongering in public speeches, at rallies, and on Twitter.
A particular source of animus—and deservedly so in light of their actions, let’s be clear—is Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13. The international gang, associated with various acts of criminality and violence, has served as a go-to bogeyman for Trump in his attacks on Democrats. As Trump would have it, a vote for the Dems in November is a vote to “let MS-13 run wild in our communities.” ICE, meanwhile, is “liberating” communities every day from the organization whose motto reportedly is “kill, rape, control.”
Indeed, MS-13 and other gangs that recruit from Central America and Mexico are a real concern, but Trump is using the specter of past incidents involving its members and existing fears and urban legends about gang violence to try to drum up support for his “zero tolerance” immigration policy and enhanced border security measures. Even belaboring the use of the word “animals” to describe MS-13 has a dog-whistle underlying meaning, as Trump’s indiscriminate employ of this pejorative has been interpreted as a general dehumanization of immigrants and people of color. If Trump hadn’t kicked off his presidential bid denigrating an entire country and its people, we might have a chance of giving him the benefit of the doubt. By now, though, many of us know better, and that Trump knew exactly what he was saying when he used the word “animals” with all its vagaries.
It’s bad enough that Donald Trump and his flunkies embrace an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to undocumented immigrants as a subset of the larger conversation about who is or isn’t considered a “true” American. You know, largely because of that whole “being a decent human being” thing that Trump seems not to be able to understand. What makes this stance yet more problematic is the notion it fails to recognize—unconsciously or willingly—the United States’ complicity in the conditions which have led to a refugee/asylee crisis in Central America, notably in its “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras).
Cole Kazdin, writing for VICE Media, outlines how the U.S. has had a hand in destabilizing Central American nations long before the era of Trump. Citing Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor of Latin American studies at the University of Arizona, heavily throughout the piece, Kazdin depicts a pattern of American intervention on behalf of its own interests—and usually at the expense of competing interests within those countries.
In Guatemala, back in the 1950s, under the guise of fighting communism, the United States helped organize a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected government and continued to train the Guatemalan army into the 1970s, a civil war that Oglesby characterizes in no uncertain terms as “genocide.” In 1970s Nicaragua, the U.S. government directly inserted itself in the clash between the democratic nationalist Sandinistas and the dictatorship helmed by the Somoza family, later supporting the Contras, a material relationship that infamously saw the Reagan administration fund these contrarrevolucionarios through the covert sale of arms to Iran. In El Salvador and Honduras, meanwhile, the U.S. intervened on behalf of the Salvadoran government in an effort to squelch the socialist group FMLN and held military exercises in Honduras.
As Kazdin notes, this is before we even get to the “war on drugs,” an ongoing situation set in motion as part of Richard Nixon’s political agenda that pushed cartels out of Colombia and into the impoverished, unstable Northern Triangle. Going back to MS-13, while its activities are relevant to the war on drugs and their criminality is certainly not to be lauded, Kazdin, via Oglesby, stresses that while the group has strong Salvadoran roots, its origins are traced back to Los Angeles, not Central America.
Furthermore, dwelling on MS-13 overlooks the larger issue of government-linked crime networks that come directly out of the counterinsurgency experience of the 1980s,” according to Oglesby. The American government may not be directly encouraging the rise of gang numbers, but by indirectly paving the way for their growth, its influence looms large. As it is in the Middle East and elsewhere, regime change can produce some unfortunate unintended consequences.
With all this in mind, and getting to the issue of migration and asylum-seeking, despite its hand in catalyzing unsafe, untenable situations in Central America, the United States has made it a habit of refusing asylum to applicants from south of its border, particularly those coming from El Salvador. Now with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement that domestic violence and gang violence are no longer grounds for asylum, there is every concern that people will continue to try crossing the desert and relying on criminal networks to help smuggle them north, which presents a new set of dangers. Trump and Co. are keeping with the historical trend, but in a way that is seemingly even more overt in terms of racism and xenophobia, and holding to the idea that these additional perilous hoops through which to jump will prove an effective deterrent to illegal immigration, and a disincentive to would-be gangbangers near and south of the border.
Here’s the thing, though: these methods may not be having their intended effect, or may be even serving to exacerbate the situations they profess to fix. On the migration front, Elizabeth Oglesby indicates that militarizing the border serves only to increase migration. Not only has the price of smuggling people north soared commensurate with the uptick in danger, but since it is that much more difficult to return, more families are migrating together to try to keep the unit together.
Another point worth considering: what people are trying to escape in Central America might be as bad or worse than what they face trying to immigrate illegally into the United States. Andres Oppenheimer, writing for The Miami Herald, agrees, and believes the problem will keep getting worse as long as parents have to fear for their lives and those of their children.
Oppenheimer cites Roger Noriega, who served in the State Department under George W. Bush, and who points to gang violence and organized crime—fed to a large extent by a demand for illegal drugs in the States—as destructive forces to economies and state institutions, not to mention individuals who run afoul of bad actors. For too many families in Central America and Mexico, there is a real risk of their children being forced into the employ of gangs and/or having to pay these gangs off for “protection.” Moreover, governments and officials are too often corrupt, powerless to diminish the influence of gangs, or both. Such is not a recipe for substantive positive change.
Trying to put a bandage on the illegal immigration situation in the form of fences/walls and more Border Patrol agents, as Oppenheimer and others would argue, therefore does a poor job of stopping the bleeding when the underlying health of these source countries for asylum-seekers is suspect. In terms of possible solutions, therefore, it would seem prudent, if not necessary, to invest in these countries in a humanitarian capacity and to help fund and mobilize efforts to help combat corruption and crime. Instead, Congress has reduced assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras by almost $85 million since 2017, which almost certainly won’t help willing governments combat the influence of criminal organizations. In other words, isolationism isn’t the answer.
As for MS-13, treating its influence with a “firm hand” may limit its effectiveness and bring up a new set of ethical and moral issues about the procedures used to combat gang violence. In El Salvador, the U.S. government has thrown millions of dollars at curbing the influence of Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs, and the brutality and corruption associated with the Salvadoran government’s approach may be proving counterproductive. A detailed special report for CNN by Nick Paton Walsh, Barbara Arvanitidis, and Bryan Avelar on the link between U.S.-funded police and illegal executions in El Salvador provides a sense of perspective on this note:
While the US program is aimed at improving the effectiveness and legality of El Salvador’s fight against gangs, narcotraffickers and human smugglers, the “Firm Hand” strategy being deployed now by the country’s government — against a gang culture so widespread it amounts to an insurgency of sorts — runs counter to lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to some analysts. In those US-led conflicts, corrupt security forces and brutality exacerbated the ferocity of the insurgency.
Analysts have noted that brutal police tactics have previously backfired, as the gang members killed are sometimes looked upon more favorably in their neighborhoods, or less guilty than intelligence suggests, causing anger in the community and prompting some residents to turn away from the police and towards the gangs.
Not for nothing, but Afghanistan and Iraq are not the kind of examples you want to lead with as analogs of success in dealing with hostile groups. Even when dealing with a potential criminal element in an environment as conducive to drug-related violence as El Salvador, abuses by authorities are liable to produce a backlash, despite the public’s desire for their leaders to be tough on crime. Simply put, a balance has to be struck, and extrajudicial killings tip the scales the wrong way.
At the end of the day, and at a fundamental level, the questions that should be asked by the Trump administration are as follows: 1) “What are we trying to accomplish regarding immigration and violence as it impacts the United States, Mexico, and Central America?” 2) “Are we accomplishing what we have set out to accomplish?” and 3) “If so, are the solutions worth the costs?” Thus far, however, there is little to suggest the relevant problems have even been adequately defined, let alone sufficiently addressed, and with all the finger-pointing that President Trump has done, you can be sure he hasn’t considered America’s role in perpetuating worrisome trends.
Returning to Cole Kazdin’s column for a moment, while Elizabeth Oglesby’s damning analysis of U.S. relations with Central America features prominently in her analysis, the words of civil rights advocates and other experts carry as much weight—if not more—and succinctly state the case for America’s direct engagement with Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle in a more diplomatic and even-handed way.
Per Xochitl Sanchez, TPS (Temporary Protected Status) coordinator for CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, the United States has “a moral and social responsibility to this population of immigrants as they are complicit in the creation of the conditions of forced migration” of these countries, notably El Salvador. Charles Kamasaki, senior cabinet advisor for UNIDOS US, also cited within Kazdin’s piece, likewise believes in acting in accord with a moral imperative steeped in equanimity and reciprocity. As Kamasaki puts forth, “For those who felt strongly that we should intervene in Central America, whether it was to fight communism, or to maintain good conditions for business so American consumers could enjoy cheap bananas or Nicaraguan coffee, I would argue that responsibility’s a two-way street. If we enjoy benefits, then that brings with it some obligations.”
Alas, “diplomacy” in the era of President Donald Trump evidently involves starting trade wars and other confrontations with our presumed allies, railing against the likes of Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel while praising dictatorial leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. If we can’t get along with Canada, a row with whom comedian Seth Meyers likened to “holding a grudge against a golden retriever puppy,” there’s obviously little room for a spirit of cooperation with countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, nations replete with brown-skinned individuals who speak Spanish and, therefore, must be demonized as part of Trump’s demagoguery.
For Christ’s sake, the man picked a fight with Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the island was hit by a devastating hurricane. These storm victims are American citizens. Just because they are people of color and can’t vote in congressional and presidential elections doesn’t mean they should be an after-thought, especially not when noting the mainland’s role in loading the territory with crippling debt. Instead, Trump being Trump, he lashes out on Twitter and calls people names—especially when they are women and/or people of color and dare to challenge him. I mean, if one were to visit the Oval Office and find a dartboard with a picture of Maxine Waters’s face on it, would he or she be really surprised? Dude’s got an ax to grind.
While harboring guilt about the treatment of Central America’s Northern Triangle to the extent it stunts our ability to act and move forward would be its own issue, that the United States’ historical culpability continues to go largely unspoken makes the prospects of fixing problems which affect North America too (such as gang violence and mass migration) rather grim. America should take more responsibility for promoting violence in Central America. But it probably won’t, and until it does, it would seem the wounds that mark many Central American institutions will continue to stay open.
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This just in: the Liberal government in charge of Canada is set to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana nationwide by Canada Day, 2018. According to David Cochrane, senior reporter for CBC News, the move comes after a recommendation by a federally appointed task force, and while it will be the job of the Canadian government to make sure the substance is safe and secure as well as to issue licenses to producers, the individual Canadian provinces will have the right to decide how the marijuana is distributed, priced, and sold, and may increase the minimum age limit of 18 if they wish.
This intended policy shift is significant for a number of reasons. For one, if ratified, it would take effect in less than a year-and-a-half. Secondly, Canada would be one of the few countries to legalize marijuana, as opposed to merely just decriminalizing it. There are, of course, limits on how much marijuana one can cultivate, and again, there may be additional constraints imposed by provincial governments, but this is a critical distinction. Thirdly, that this change would occur so close to home makes for an intriguing juxtaposition next to the state of drug laws in the United States and the perpetuation of the so-called “war on drugs.” Marijuana is a linchpin in the drug war in America, with nearly half of all drug-related arrests relating to this substance. I’m sure you don’t need me to enumerate the points of rhetoric on the dangers of marijuana. It’s a “gateway drug.” It’s as bad as cocaine or heroin. If you use it, you will do nothing but stay in your parents’ basement all day, playing video games and eating cheese curls. OK, so the last one, at least, is distinctly possible, but chances are you were going to end up like that—pot or not.
As with any established system of beliefs at the intersection of health, medicine, and morality, though, the veracity of these ideas merits scrutiny, especially considering how lives may be negatively impacted by enforcement of existing statutes. In 2016, Adam Conover, host of the show Adam Ruins Everything and regular author of content for the website CollegeHumor, produced a segment on marijuana, as he has done with a number of varied subjects, debunking associated myths and largely bumming out people with his revelations, at least in the context of the fictional encounters depicted in the program. Within the segment, Conover and his team of researchers provide counterarguments to the kind of rhetoric referenced above, averring:
1. For most people, weed is essentially harmless.
Do note the qualifier “essentially.” Adam Conover suggests that for individuals under the age of 25, marijuana can impact cognitive function and negatively impact memory, but once one’s brain is fully formed, this risk is all but negated. And next to alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is nowhere near as lethal—if at all.
2. Marijuana isn’t a gateway drug.
As Conover explains, most people who smoke weed don’t even continue to do so. In other words, cannabis isn’t even a gateway to more cannabis, let alone a gateway to hard drugs.
3. Marijuana has been used by people for millennia, and in America, was available for many years as part of over-the-counter medications.
Conover and Co. cite records detailing cannabis being grown some 8,000 years ago, as well as the writings of Herodotus back in 440 BCE in reference to cannabis steam baths. Here in the US of A, marijuana was legal for much of the country’s history, and was even advertised and used in medicines sold over the counter. To put it, ahem, bluntly, weed has been socially acceptable for longer than it hasn’t. So, ahem, put that it in your pipe and smoke it. OK—I’m done with the bad marijuana jokes. Maybe.
So, what gives? Why all the bluster and vilification of marijuana and the people who would legally smoke it? There’s a sordid history here, and a lot of it has to do with deliberate attempts to marginalize specific groups of people. The key events in U.S. history relating to the criminalization of cannabis, as highlighted by Adam Conover:
Facing a looming funding shortage to his agency, Henry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, decided to use marijuana as the centerpiece of a smear campaign of the drug itself and of people who could be used as political capital in helping influence drug policy. Anslinger published findings and testified before Congress, declaring marijuana a drug that causes insanity and violent rage in its users, and pointed to its use by Mexicans, a group already disliked by the jingoists among us. (Some 75+ years later, it appears not much has changed.) The seeds were planted for a crusade against cannabis—the wrong kind of seeds indeed, from the marijuana-smoker’s perspective, anyway.
With the assassination of marijuana as a dangerous drug and of certain “undesirables” well underway, Congress passed a bill to prohibit the use of marijuana as illegal, and later, with Anslinger’s help, established mandatory minimum sentencing laws that could land first-time users in jail to the tune of two to 10 years. Ouch.
By this point, it was well known by the federal government that marijuana was not the danger it had been made out to be. A bipartisan commission actually recommended to President Richard Nixon that marijuana be decriminalized, i.e. that offenders, especially first-time offenders, be given fines or otherwise be free from arrest or prison time. Ol’ Tricky Dick, though, apparently would have none of it, or as the video terms it, “had no chill.” Instead, marijuana became a top focus of what is known as the “war on drugs.”
What is most significant is not what Nixon decided, but why he did. Was his refusal to decriminalize marijuana really just designed to curb the deleterious effects of drugs on the American people, or did something more decidedly sinister motivate his actions? If what former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman says is true, the latter condition holds. Conover points to this quote from 1994 from an interview with Ehrlichman by writer Dan Baum on the war on drugs:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
The devil’s advocate argument here is that John Erlichman could have fabricated this justification for the war on drugs merely because he was salty about President Nixon’s apparent betrayal and having to serve time related to the Watergate scandal. Others might suggest that Richard Nixon really did hate drugs, and that Nixon’s drug czar, Jerome Jaffe, pushed for recognition of the drug problem as a health issue, not a criminal issue. Still, noting the effects the war on drugs has had on certain communities—and not necessarily good effects, mind you—an inference along these lines isn’t unreasonable either. As Adam Conover mentions, despite smoking at the same rate, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. And we’re just talking about weed here. This doesn’t even begin to consider, for instance, sentencing disparities for cocaine and crack that have fallen largely along racial lines, as well as the large inequities of the criminal justice system facing people of color at large. Thus, even if Nixon didn’t really mean for the war on drugs to become an attack on liberals and/or minorities, a view to which Conover, Baum and others clearly subscribe, to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter. The damage has already been done.
President Nixon began the war on drugs in the 1970s. Additional news flash: it is 2017. More than thirty years later, by looking at today’s criminal statutes on marijuana buying and selling, cultivation, possession, and use, this war is being fought as hard as ever. True, some states have made it legal, and still others make distinctions for decriminalization and medicinal use, but as Adam Conover offers at the end of his segment, minimum mandatory sentencing still is in effect across the country, and there’s that, you know, whole nagging black-people-get-arrested-more-than-white-people-problem in effect. Once again, I ask: what gives? If we knew about the relative harmlessness of cannabis back in the 30s and 40s, why are we still filling jails with low-level drug offenders, and why is marijuana still a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act—in spite of its legalization for medical use in many jurisdictions? The question I would argue we need to ask to help bring us closer to an understanding is not merely, “What gives?” but “Who stands to gain from the perpetuation of the drug war?”
As it should be abundantly clear by now, where there’s policy, especially the kind backed by a strong moral component (at least superficially), there’s usually money to be made, and in the case of the war on drugs in the United States, the apparent loss of the majority-minority benefits a few core groups within the minority-majority. So, who potentially is stunting the growth of cannabis in America, both figuratively and literally?
What good are prisons without the inmates to fill them? And how better to help fill jails and prisons than with arrests related to drug crimes, including those related to marijuana? In one sense, prisons as a whole stand to lose from the continuation or even acceleration of the war on drugs, with concerns about overcrowding, not to mention the cost of needing to build, maintain, and staff correctional facilities. In another sense, however, private prisons, particularly those that house federal inmates, are seeing their stock rise on the heels of fairly recent news that the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions will reverse a planned phase-out of private prisons based on a vague notion that crime is on the rise in this country.
On one hand, Sessions, like Richard Nixon, probably does legitimately think drugs are bad and that smoking weed has a deleterious effect on the nation and its people. As a U.S. Senator, he was critical of President Barack Obama’s lack of vocalization about the supposed dangers of marijuana, and has insisted in the past that legalization would be a “mistake” and that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” On the other hand, private prisons are a big business and effective duopoly between the companies CoreCivic and The Geo Group, two companies that just happened to donate bigly to a PAC supporting Donald Trump, if for no other reason than to improve their own fortunes with policies such as the expansion of private prisons and stronger enforcement of drug and immigration laws. If Trump values one thing, it’s loyalty to him, and Jeff Sessions has been about as loyal as they come, so based on this alone, it makes sense that Sessions would toe the line, even if he didn’t subscribe to the belief that the country is going to Hell in a proverbial hand-basket. Regardless, the pay-for-play aspect of this relationship is unsettling, as are reports of poor conditions, substandard care, and violence within private prison walls, and advocates of drug policy reform and prison reform alike are left to wonder whether or not we are regressing on both fronts.
What are prisons without inmates, and who brings offenders to jail but the police? Of particular concern regarding trends in policing of our communities is the militarization of police forces. The ACLU sets the scene thusly on its official website:
The images on the news of police wearing helmets and masks, toting assault rifles, and riding in mine-resistant armored vehicles are not isolated incidents—they represent a nationwide trend of police militarization. Federal programs providing surplus military equipment, along with departments’ own purchases, have outfitted officers with firepower that is often far beyond what is necessary for their jobs as protectors of their communities. Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform “normal” police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence. Yet the ACLU’s recent report on police militarization, “War Comes Home,” found that SWAT teams, which were originally devised as special responders for emergency situations, are deployed for drug searches more than they are for all other purposes combined.
The change in equipment is too often paralleled by a corresponding change in attitude whereby police conceive of themselves as “at war” with communities rather than as public servants concerned with keeping their communities safe. We advocate for a return to a less dangerous, more collaborative style of policing. We should not be able to mistake our officers for soldiers.
Within this conversation about militarization of police forces, there is an acknowledged tug-of-war between what is deemed essential to do needed police work without risk to the officers involved, and what is deemed excessive and a threat to personal civil liberties. For those on the side of the men and women with the badges, the knee-jerk reaction may be one of questioning just what the ACLU knows about police work anyhow. Getting past this defensive attitude, however, scrutiny of police conduct and of how forces marshal their resources is warranted, and this is before we even get to considerations about fatal shootings of suspects and police brutality. I recognize my own liberal bias herein, but I think the above synopsis correctly assesses the shift in mindset among police from “to serve and protect” to “open, flash, and clear.” At any rate, and at the end of the day, the money invested in equipping police forces in the style of bomb squads is significant. Now five years old, but in all probability still relevant, an article by Stephen Salisbury, cultural writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, delves into the material economic costs of arming the nation’s police forces to the teeth and of fighting the war on drugs. Here is a critical excerpt from Salisbury’s article:
So much money has gone into armoring and arming local law-enforcement since 9/11 that the federal government could have rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia, my hometown, and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark, and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.
But why drone on? We all know that addressing acute social and economic issues here in the homeland was the road not taken. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security alone has doled out somewhere between $30 billion and $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, as well as other first responders. At the same time, defense contractors have proven endlessly inventive in adapting sales pitches originally honed for the military on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the desires of police on the streets of San Francisco and lower Manhattan. Oakland may not be Basra but (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld liked to say) there are always the unknown unknowns: best be prepared.
All told, the federal government has appropriated about $635 billion, accounting for inflation, for homeland security-related activities and equipment since the 9/11 attacks. To conclude, though, that “the police” have become increasingly militarized casts too narrow a net. The truth is that virtually the entire apparatus of government has been mobilized and militarized right down to the university campus.
Again, one is reticent to tell the police how to do their jobs, if for no reason than to avoid a diatribe about such matters. This notwithstanding, if important aspects of community infrastructure including affordable housing, job training, and, well, actual physical infrastructure are being neglected to accommodate camera systems, drones, and police surveillance, that’s a problem, and one that seems to pervade all levels of government. Why else would President Trump earmark an additional $54 billion in spending on defense for the proposed 2018 budget with only tepid disagreement from political leaders in the House and Senate? Whether it be for the sake of our national Armed Forces or our city police forces, we have a real problem in America about throwing money at community policing and terrorism, and to the extent the war or drugs and, specifically, attempts to curb the influence of marijuana fuel this phenomenon, the legality of cannabis remains an issue.
Do pharmaceutical companies stand to benefit more from the prohibition of marijuana or its legalization? The answer is, perhaps unfortunately, a complicated one, as much depends on how the substance is procured and what forms of the drug, if any, are deemed legal. Joel Warner explores this topic in a remarkably nuanced August 2016 piece for VICE. There are a handful of drug companies who have made investments in cannabis-based drugs who would appear to stand to benefit from the legalization of weed outright, or at least an OK from the U.S. government with respect to medical marijuana. By the same token, though, manufacturers of synthetic marijuana, a variant which may be fraught with peril next to the genuine article, likely have skin in the game to try to ensure that they are one of the few, if not the only, players at the table, and therefore would tend to resist more permissive reforms that extend to all forms of cannabis. This is in addition to traditional pharmaceutical giants who aren’t dabbling in marijuana at all, and would, in theory, oppose legalization if and when they have a major seller in the realm of, say, antidepressants or painkillers. It’s an uncertain mix of competing interests, made even more tenuous by differences in laws across states and changing attitudes within the public and at federal levels of government.
If a recent development concerning DEA approval of a synthetic marijuana drug for a company based in Phoenix is any indication, however, a trend of approval for pharmaceutical companies at the expense of drug law reform and natural weed sellers could be in the making. Insys Therapeutics, producer of the synthetic marijuana Syndros, helped fund a campaign which opposed recreational marijuana in the state of Arizona. It’s a seemingly perplexing contradiction until we get to the part where we realize the power of the pharmaceutical lobby on today’s lawmakers and their relevant policy stances. As is often the case, it helps to follow the money.
Of course, legalization of marijuana is not the only way drug law reform on this dimension could shake out, and even with the abuses of the war on drugs, statistics likely bear out a reduction in the rate of drug use, even if it isn’t a very substantial one. The obvious alternative is decriminalization of marijuana, which is in place in a number of states, aside from additional statutes specific to the use of medical marijuana. This raises the follow-up question about the merits of decriminalization vs. legalization when it comes to reducing drug use and associated crimes. Though this line of thinking merits its own post, some critics would aver that anything short of legalization still lends itself to criminality on the supply side, and particularly violent crime at that. In the Americas alone, corruption and death follow the drug trade and cartels/gangs—this is no secret. As long as there is a black market and a demand for the product, intimidation and worse can be used to drive up prices and to eliminate competition for a share of the market. In other words, when the market isn’t free, considerations of free-market economics more or less go out the window.
Another matter of import tied to legalization of marijuana is the opportunity cost of not legalizing, as is visible through the benefits realized by jurisdictions where the drug is legal. Colorado is an example of a state in which, assuming the industry is properly regulated, over a billion dollars in sales can be earned in just one year between that sold for medical use and that sold for recreational use. That’s useful tax revenue that otherwise would be forsaken on principle alone—$150 million in Colorado’s case, a third of which is derived from an excise tax which specifically funds school construction projects. This is not to say that just any project should necessarily be green-lighted if it means more dollars for states. Moreover, while some view these kinds of things in a vacuum—marijuana is plain wrong, no matter if it’s better or worse than heroin—again thinking in relative terms, next to alcohol, tobacco, or even opioids, the dangers are realistically not even close to their representation by purported authorities on the matter within state and federal governments. For those individuals who are developmentally mature enough to handle using marijuana, one of the biggest health risks that evidently exists with its use is gum disease. Not that gum disease isn’t potentially serious, mind you, but we don’t go around arresting people for failing to floss, if you catch my drift.
If a handful of states can legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use without completely falling to pieces, I would say it’s—gulp—high time we talk about legalization on a nationwide basis. Yes, marijuana isn’t exactly benign. Yes, you shouldn’t be smoking it while at work, or while driving or operating heavy machinery. All the doom and gloom about its perils, however, not only distort reality, if not completely subvert it, but—dare I say it—really bum people out, man. The war on drugs, as it is currently being fought, is more failure than success, with tangible costs for our country, our communities, and for the lives it negatively impacts, and furthermore, the positions taken by Jeff Sessions and his lot are dangerously out of touch with the views of a growing segment of the American people, and only perpetuate feelings of conflict. Seriously, though—let’s legalize marijuana. Unless we’re just going to let Canada one-up us on this. Judging purely on a side-by-side comparison of Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump, it appears they already may be lengths ahead of us—and growing.
As part of his presidential duties, Barack Obama pardoned, in time for Thanksgiving, the final turkeys of his tenure from the highest political office in the nation. As a lame duck president, if Obama wants more than the sparing of two birds to add to his legacy in his final days as POTUS, he should stand with the people of Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and their supporters—before it’s too late.
Let’s walk things back a bit, though. What exactly is President Obama’s legacy, and what do we make of all this business in Standing Rock? On the first count, well, it’s complicated. Ask five different people what they think about Barack Obama’s eight years in office, and you’ll likely get five different responses. According to the most recent Gallup polling, at any rate, on approval of the job President Obama is doing, from the period spanning November 14 to November 20, 2016, 56% give the man a thumbs-up. This figure is under the high watermark of 69%, the average set across the three-day period from January 22 to January 24, 2009, when Obama was just settling into his new role as leader of the free world, but significantly better than the 38% nadir he registered numerous times after that 69% zenith, most recently in September of 2014. To put this in historical perspective, Barack Obama’s 32nd-quarter rating is about four percentage points higher than that of U.S. presidents across history. It is roughly equivalent with the approval rating enjoyed by President Ronald Reagan at the same point in his presidency (57%), a few points behind that of Bill Clinton (63%), and, ahem, leaps and bounds ahead of George W. Bush (29%). So, per the vox populi, Pres. Barack Obama is in line with what we’d expect from a person of his stature, and even slightly better.
While public opinion can inform history’s larger judgment of a president’s impact on the country, perhaps it would prove more instructive to view Obama’s two terms through the lens of major events within them. Accordingly, let’s review his seven-plus years and change and see what stands out:
Stimulus package/Economic policy
Even the most hard-hearted Republican critics of Barack Obama as President of the United States would probably tend to acknowledge the guy was handed a pretty rough deal in light of economic happenings at the time. The country was reeling from the global financial crisis known here in the U.S. as the Great Recession, and in a move designed to prevent the American economy from complete collapse, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, which authorized $787 billion in spending to combat the negative effects of the recession. The Obama administration contended that the various measures enacted under ARRA were necessary to avoid an even worse fate for the nation. Of course, this argument seemed all but lost on GOP lawmakers; in an example of the kind of partisan conflict Barack Obama’s initiatives would experience throughout his time in office, ARRA would only make it to his desk to be signed on the strength of Democrats’ votes, with just three Republican senators voting yea as the bill worked its way through Congress. Emergency spending bills, threats of government shutdowns—Jesus, the GOP really likes to play chicken with the U.S. economy, don’t they?
The Obama administration lobbied for a second such “stimulus package” later in the year, but this would fail to pass. By this point, Republican assassination of the legacy of the ARRA was well under way, with the idea of a “stimulus” bill proving wildly unpopular with the public. Still, it is not as if President Obama’s policies didn’t make an impact even beyond the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Speaking of large cash infusions to institutions, Obama presided over a second auto bailout to the tune of $9.3 billion more. Pres. Obama also signed into law a federal minimum wage increase up to $7.25, which is great for the workers it affects but falls well short of the $12 minimum wage Barack Obama himself had sought and which Hillary Clinton had stressed as a part of her economic plan during her campaign.
As for post-recession trends during Obama’s two terms, median income has yet to rebound from its 2007 pre-recession rate, prompting fears those incomes will never return. GDP growth has been positive, but not overwhelming. Short-term interest rates only recently increased after staying near zero for most of the Obama presidency. Finally, unemployment has seen a decline from its 10% peak in 2009, and lately has been hovering around a rate of 5%, but this figure is somewhat misleading owing to things like comparisons between part-time and full-time workers as well as inability to account for those who have given up looking for work. Broadly speaking, one might judge Barack Obama’s presidency, in economic terms, as one which averted disaster, but otherwise has been uneven to minimal in the benefits it has promoted in these key areas.
Other economic policy stances
The political hot potato that it always seems to be, the national debt has also been a topic of considerable discussion during Obama’s tenure as POTUS. While other countries faced austerity measures related to the global financial crisis, U.S. government debt has grown under Barack Obama’s watch, paving the way for conflicts along politically ideological lines concerning whether or not spending should be slashed in key areas. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, or the Simpson-Bowles Commission, was commissioned in 2010 to address ways in which the United States might significantly lower its debt. Numerous individual measures were suggested as part of this report, though the analysis that resulted from the Commission was broadly encapsulated by calls for spending cuts (e.g. cutting into our bloated military spending) and tax increases. Of course, suggesting we spend less on the military and take more from wealthy Americans generally doesn’t sit well with the GOP, so perhaps unsurprisingly, these proposals never received a vote of approval in Congress. Oh, well. The academic exercise was fun, wasn’t it?
Even before Barack Obama took office in 2009, Republican lawmakers were primed to give him hell on matters of the nation’s debt ceiling. When the GOP, buoyed by surging popularity of Tea Party Republican politics, cleaned up in the 2010 mid-term elections, and their voice got that much louder in the House of Representatives, debates over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling and/or effect significant cuts in areas like entitlement programs and military spending grew that much more contentious. Obama, to his credit, tried to negotiate with John Boehner and the other House Republicans on these matters. Predictably, that didn’t work in terms of a “grand bargain.” Instead, we got the Budget Control Act of 2011, which raised the debt ceiling, kicking the proverbial can down the road as per the usual, as well as established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which also didn’t work, and provided for budget sequestration, which would automatically take effect in case Democrats and Republicans couldn’t reach an agreement through the Committee. Which, of course, it did.
Later on in Obama’s presidency, in October 2013, there was a fun little government shutdown, again resulting from an impasse on concerns of a budgetary nature—this time, over whether or not to defund ObamaCare. The end result of that political kerfuffle was a resolution to end the shutdown, fund an omnibus spending bill, and raise the debt ceiling—again. The above conflicts, viewed out of context, can be viewed as a hallmark of a presidency helmed by a divisive leader. In reality, though, it takes two to tango, and since achieving a majority in the House and the Senate, Republicans have been every bit the stubborn obstructionists we might expect from lawmakers deferring to party politics. In other words, for all the griping about Batack Obama’s failure to reach across the political aisle, GOP lawmakers were awfully quick to slap at his hand on the occasions he did eke it out.
There’s so much material here it’s difficult to know where to begin. We might have to look at some of the highlights within the highlights, so to speak. Here are just some of the areas that helped define Barack Obama’s time as the so-called leader of the free world:
1) Afghanistan and Iraq
Much as President Obama inherited an economic shit-storm with the advent of the Great Recession, the man inherited a veritable quagmire in the Middle East after George W. Bush plunged us headlong into armed conflict in not one, but two, countries. Noting the challenges presented by America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama should be afforded some understanding with respect to the tough decisions he was forced to reckon with as Dubya’s successor. Of course, this is not to absolutely meant to exonerate him either. On one hand, Barack Obama, a vocal critic of the Iraq War during his initial campaign, was instrumental in the substantial drawing-down of troops stationed in Iraq, at least prior to the rise of ISIS.
On the other hand, as advised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, Obama authorized the expansion of American servicemen and servicewomen to a high mark of 100,000 in Afghanistan before signing an agreement to leave major combat operations to Afghan forces. If there’s one major criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the ongoing situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, from my perspective, it is that it has been too eager to spin a narrative of success and close the book on our efforts in these countries when the ever-present threat of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and, within the former, the Taliban, exists and causes unrest. By the same token, this is not to meant to overstate their danger, but only to consider that the way in which we fight wars is changing, and to put a timetable on completion when deep ideological divisions lie behind conflicts on international and national levels almost invites that schedule’s destruction.
2) China/East Asia
China has been a toughie for Barack Obama as President, no lie. While more recently, the emerging power has seen a slowing of its economy, its overall improvement in stature on the world’s stage has meant that President Xi Jinping and Co. have been eager to whip their dongs out and swing them around. In particular, the U.S. and China have shared a rather tentative relationship of late, with periodic spats over issues like arms sales to Taiwan, climate change, cyber-security, handling of North Korea, human rights, and territorial disputes. If nothing else, though, the apparent declining support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—an agreement meant, if nothing else, to assert American economic presence in Asia alongside the People’s Republic—seems to have saved Obama from a potential stain on his legacy.
Speaking of North Korea, by the way, um, it’s still there, and still working on nuclear weaponry. Sweet dreams.
So, that whole thing about Cuba being on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list is done with. Also, recently, diplomatic relationships have been restored between Cuba and the United States, and economic restrictions have been loosened. Shit, Obama even went to see a baseball game down there! Cuban-American relations, in short, seem to be on the upswing. Then again, if Fidel Castro’s parting words before his recent passing are any indication, the U.S. would be wise to proceed with caution, and perhaps vice-versa. Castro wrote caustically that Cuba does not need any gifts from “the Empire,” and furthermore, that Barack Obama has not tried to understand Cuban politics. While it may seem as if everything is hunky-dory now, seeds of resentment toward America may yet exist in Cuba and elsewhere in lands touched by communism.
4) Drone strikes
Perhaps one of my biggest gripes with Barack Obama’s foreign policy stances over his tenure was that his administration saw an expansion of the drone warfare program set upon by George W. Bush. The predominant criticism with this bit of policy shift is that for all the terrorist figureheads “neutralized” by strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, numerous civilian casualties have resulted, including those of American citizens. A drone strike was even used to intentionally take out Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen and Muslim cleric with ties to al-Qaeda, controversial in its own right for essentially being an extrajudicial killing OK’d by the Commander-in-Chief.
It seems more than vaguely hypocritical for the United States to police the world and portray itself as a white knight of sorts when it goes around bombing other countries, killing innocent people, and apologizing with a note saying “Oops!” We may not be terrorists per se, but indiscriminately flexing our military muscles with little regard for collateral damage is a sin in its own right. And Obama is guilty in his own right, to be sure.
The obstruction of Republicans notwithstanding, that President Obama has been unable to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay as intended—a goal he has reaffirmed year after year, at that—has got to feel like a disappointment for both he and human rights advocates. Sure, strides have been made in reducing the number of captives at the naval base there, as well as ending the practices of “enhanced” interrogation techniques and referring to those being held in detention as “enemy combatants,” but that detainees can still be held indefinitely without being charged is gross overreach on the part of the United States government. From where I’m sitting, Gitmo’s legacy is a stain on our national character, and potentially giving Donald Trump and his appointees broad access is deeply troubling.
Republicans tend to get all worked up about where we are in our relationship with Iran, with two main triggers in this regard. The first is America’s resolution with Iran concerning the latter’s agreement to limits on its nuclear program and access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in return for reducing sanctions. To be fair, it doesn’t exactly warm the cockles of one’s heart to have to negotiate with a country that has more or less made “Death to America” a national slogan. Nonetheless, outside the realm of Congress and with no disrespect to Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, it would seem as if there is high approval for such an accord, and I, for one, feel better about having some sort of understanding in place and approaching the situation with a greater sense of diplomacy than George W. Bush and his hawkish administration did.
The other issue that gets GOP politicians and conservative theorists alike all hot and bothered is a supposed $1.7 billion “ransom payment” (includes interest) to the Iranian government in return for the release of three American prisoners. The timing was suspicious, as I’m sure many on both the left and right can agree, but not merely to minimize this controversy, but I also don’t know what evidence there is that these monies were wired for the express purpose of hostage release. It’s bad optics, yes, but there is the possibility it is just that.
By now, most of America’s fixation on Libya seems to involve the events surrounding the attack on Benghazi. I remain critical of the Department of State’s handling of this situation, as I believe requests for more security and resources at the diplomatic mission were ignored by Hillary Clinton’s department, and suggesting she isn’t culpable because she wasn’t made aware of the deteriorating situation in Libya rings hollow when it can be argued that she should have been more aware, especially when she and others within the Obama administration were instrumental in pushing for Gaddafi’s deposition. While perhaps not the most egregious chapter in the book of Barack Obama’s presidency, America’s involvement in Libya during his two terms also doesn’t do much to allay concerns about our nation’s “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude when it comes to addressing international and national disputes.
8) Osama bin Laden
Oh, yeah. We killed that f**ker. Moving along.
Relations between the United States of America and the Russian Federation seemed to be moving in a positive direction, at least during Obama’s first term. Our president and their president signed a major nuclear arms control agreement. Russia joined the World Trade Organization, and the two countries were doing business again. The U.S. and Russia—Russia and the U.S.—we were like BFFs! And then Vladimir Putin took the reins again in Russia, and that got shot to shit. With actions such as the annexation of Crimea, repeated incursions into the Ukraine, and propping up the deadly regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Putin’s militarism has put his country on a course directly at odds with the “reset” Barack Obama had envisioned for U.S.-Russia relations. Most recently, probable interference of the Russians in American electoral affairs—needless to say, so not cool. Obama has caught a lot of flak for not meeting Putin’s shows of force with the same contentious spirit, but I applaud his administration’s levelheadedness, as too much fuel on the fire could lead to an escalation of any conflict, armed or otherwise. Sometimes, restraint is the best policy. Looking at you, President-Elect Trump.
Speaking of Syria, it’s a mess. Assad, insurgent forces, ISIS, Russia, and the U.S. launching airstrikes—and the proud people of a country with a rich history caught in between. It’s a devastating situation, and no doubt you’ve seen some of the photos of the carnage. In November of last year, Barack Obama announced a plan to resettle some 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States. If you ask me, the number should probably closer to 100,000—conservative Republican rhetoric be damned. Though the civil unrest is a conflict of a military nature, the suffering within Syria is a fundamentally human issue. Pres. Obama did not cause this war. He and Hillary Clinton did not give rise to ISIS. As such, he alone cannot solve the complex problems within the Syrian state. Alongside cooperation with neighboring countries, what we sorely need is compassion for the people affected by the fighting in Syria.
Social policy/domestic initiatives
Again, there’s a lot of ways we could go with topics under this heading, but seeing as we’ve already been through a lot of material, I’ll try to be briefer on this end. The domestic initiative most synonymous with Barack Obama’s presidency is, of course, the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as ObamaCare. There are a lot of ObamaCare haters out there, and in light of this antipathy, even staunch Democrats have found themselves hard-pressed to defend the ACA. For my part, though the initial execution may have been flawed (recall all those early problems with Healthcare.gov), this initiative does put us closer to where we need to be in terms of universal healthcare—which is a right, mind you, or should be. The notion of any sort of mandate, be it required of employers or individuals, it would seem, really sticks in the craw of its detractors, but despite the hooting and hollering about government overreach from the right and railing about the burden on small businesses, having large numbers of uninsured Americans creates its own costs, and potentially larger ones at that down the road. ObamaCare is not perfect, but to label it an outright failure is more than a little misleading.
On other dimensions of domestic policy, Pres. Obama’s initiatives, if not particularly far-reaching, can be once more understood within the context of an obstructionist Congress. Barack Obama signed into law a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but only on the strength of support from Democratic lawmakers. Though the Obama administration saw a record number of deportations, Obama himself has been a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act, and signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy into law—even though he has been fought tooth-and-nail on both issues. Attempts to pass sensible gun law reform have been, in a word, cock-blocked by Republicans’ subservience to the NRA. And anyone thinking Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency would magically fix what ails the nation in terms of racial prejudice has full permission to go screw. As recent political events have brought to the forefront, there is a lot of deep-seated racism present in the United States, the likes of which Jesus Himself couldn’t hope to overcome. To those who would brand Barack Obama as a divider and not a uniter, I must express my doubts about how seriously you were willing to be united in the first place—that is, on terms other than your own.
Full disclosure: I used and thank Wikipedia’s page on Barack Obama’s presidency for serving as a template for my personal opinions on his administration’s policies in light of the challenges he has faced. If you do check that link, you’ll notice I omitted two sections. One is science, technology, and the environment, a lot of which I found to be dry and uninteresting, quite frankly, and since this post is long enough already, I opted to scrap it, though environmental concerns are related to the discussion soon to follow. The other section, meanwhile, is ethics, and it is at this point which I’ll strive to make the connection to Standing Rock. Overall, I feel Barack Obama, who easily outpaces George W. Bush in leadership skills and sound foreign policy navigation (not exactly the most difficult achievement), if I may say so myself, has done a fairly good job at steering the nation along a path of incremental progress, a job made that much more difficult by the obstinacy of the GOP.
This notion of the virtue of incremental progress, however, in itself a limiting factor, and thus, in general terms, is at the same time a major criticism of the Obama occupancy of the White House—that his policies haven’t gone far enough, even noting Republican resistance. Don’t get me wrong—I like Barack Obama. As a person, I think he’s got a great personality, not to mention a beautiful family and a wife and First Lady in Michelle who may be as capable a leader as he, if not more so. Nevertheless, there are points where I disagree with the President, a notion some Democratic Party loyalists treat as tantamount to disrespect or even heresy. On an economic front, as alluded to earlier, I disapprove of Obama’s stubborn adherence to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As a true Bernie Sanders devotee, I also find fault with his administration’s seeming unwillingness to go beyond the provisions of Dodd-Frank, as many would agree is necessary to keep Wall Street in check, including but not limited to reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, not to mention his extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. Within the sphere of social policy, too, for all the reforms made in the intersection of the criminal justice system and drug laws, the war on drugs still rages on, and the DEA is still wont to equate marijuana with a drug like heroin, while substances like alcohol, opioids and tobacco are easily accessible.
Additionally, invoking again matters of ethics, for a president who vowed that lobbyists wouldn’t find a place in his White House and that his administration would be the most transparent in history, Barack Obama has waffled if not deliberately violated these precepts. If we add the revelation of the existence in 2013 by Edward Snowden of the PRISM mass electronic surveillance program as a function of the NSA, the willingness of the Obama administration to cross ethical lines, if not legal and constitutional lines, is all the more unsettling. If we bring contemplations of social and moral responsibility into the mix, meanwhile, while, again, Obama has fared significantly better than his predecessor, as regards the environment, it’s yet a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Pres. Obama has identified climate change as the biggest threat the nation and world faces, and has set forth legislation on numerous occasions designed to cap carbon emissions and overall reduce the United States’ emissions footprint. On the other hand, Obama has only nixed domestic offshore drilling and other projects like the Keystone XL extension because they weren’t economically viable, not for strict adherence to environmental principles. Do as I say, not as I’d do if the money were better.
Enter the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Some background information, first. Energy Transfer Partners, a Fortune 500 natural gas and propane firm, seeks to construct a pipeline that would run from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota to a point in southern Illinois, going underneath the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and part of Lake Oahe near Standing Rock in the process. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the proposed pipeline would have little to no impact on the surrounding area. This assessment, however, has been judged by outside observers as being rather limited in scope, failing to analyze the situation in terms of a potential area-wide environmental impact, and since being asked to conduct a full-scale review by various related agencies, even the Corps has acknowledged it needs more time to make an adequate assessment on the impact the Dakota Access Pipeline could have.
That’s the good news, the delay. The bad news comes with how little attention the progress of the Dakota Access Pipeline project and the protests of its completion have received until recently, and just how severe the backlash has been against protestors from security guards contracted by those involved with the pipeline project as well as law enforcement siding with the corporate entity. There have been reports of guard dogs and pepper spray used on protestors, as well as concussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons in freezing conditions, not to mention the use of the criminal justice system to intimidate and silence journalists. Even if some protestors were being unruly, though, as North Dakota state police have alleged, this use of force appears disproportionate and harsh. What’s more, this treatment would seem to run at odds with how other superficially similar situations have unfolded. Making an allusion to the extended occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by armed militants, the coiner of the term Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza had this to say:
So let me get this correct. If you’re white, you can occupy federal property … and get found not guilty. No teargas, no tanks, no rubber bullets … If you’re indigenous and fighting to protect our earth, and the water we depend on to survive, you get tear gassed, media blackouts, tanks and all that.
The disparity seems pretty telling. In America, the sanctity of Indian lands and water sources evidently pales in comparison to the whims of the fossil fuel industry and white privilege. If you’re pumping vast sums of oil or you’re Caucasian and packing heat in vague protest of government overreach, you stand to fare better than a Dakota Access Pipeline protestor or, say, a black person stopped by the cops for a minor traffic violation.
Thankfully, in light of the apparent brutality shown toward these protestors, along with the sheer number of people who have stood with Standing Rock, not to mention several entertainers and other celebrities who have drawn attention to the plight of the reservation’s Sioux citizens and others who have suffered for the cause (for Christ’s sake, they arrested Shailene Woodley, of all people! Shailene Woodley!), average Joes like you and me are taking notice. One voice above all, though, would carry considerably more weight, and since I spent some 3,000 words talking about him just now, I think you know to whom I’m alluding. Barack Obama has been notably silent on matters of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, as were Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton once it became, for all intents and purposes, a heads-up contest for the presidency.
It’s not like his involvement hasn’t been sought, either. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader and voice for the Great Sioux Nation, has pleaded with Pres. Obama to keep his word with recognition of treaties with native peoples and to act when they are violated. Bernie Sanders has spoken at a protest in front of the White House and personally appealed to the President to act against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and other senators have urged him and his administration to do a more thorough environmental assessment of the project’s impact, as well as consider consulting more directly and openly with tribal representatives. Obama himself has even acknowledged Standing Rock Reservation and the associated protests by name on more than occasion.
Acknowledgment of the problem helps, and I encourage those of you who support resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline to use the hashtag #NoDAPL in your social media posts and dialogs. But we need action—not just from people like you and I—but from our leaders, those with the most direct path and power to affect change. And Barack Obama is at the top of the list. As noted, Obama and Co. has killed offshore drilling projects and the Keystone XL extension—though not necessarily for the purported altruistic reasons. Going back to his legacy, though, if ever there were a time to stand for something on principle, it would be now, and standing with the people of Standing Rock and the future of the planet over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the fossil fuel industry. President Obama, if I may address you directly, sir—you are a lame duck president. Your political party just had its ass handed to it in the election, despite the results of the popular vote for the president, in part because people are fed up with politics as usual and the incremental progress paradigm of yesteryear. And while party loyalists and more moderate liberals may support you no matter what, those of us disenfranchised with the status quo are asking for more, and to boot, those on the extreme right are intent on destroying the best points of your legacy.
Which is why, Mr. President, now is the time to act. Stand with Standing Rock, because Donald Trump almost certainly won’t. Re-write the narrative. Leave one final meritorious page in the storybook of your presidency. I, concerned citizens around the world, and the planet itself will thank and remember you for it.