Sunshine Recorder

Link: Defending Wealth in America

Democracy poses unique challenges to wealth defence, and yet market democracies have achieved some of the highest degrees of wealth inequality in human history. How have the rich managed the contradiction between formal equality and material disparity?

As discussed in Part 1 of this essay, extreme wealth stratification is the single most enduring social pattern across all polities from Mesopotamia to the present. Sustaining extreme material inequality is neither easy nor automatic. It requires constant and active strategies of wealth defence by the rich, or by those their material resources engage for this purpose. An important transformation over the centuries was the movement of violence out of the hands of the rich in exchange for their support for impersonal institutions of coercion whose first priority has been the defence of property rights that make great fortunes viable politically.

Abundant wealth attracts far greater threats than do ordinary possessions, and protecting it from redistribution demands an unusually conscious and multi-faceted defence. Partly for this reason, great wealth concentrates the political attention and heightens the class consciousness of the rich far more than great poverty does for the poor.1 As with any minority, the wealthy few are more acutely aware of their small numbers than the non-rich are of their enormity. The rich therefore tend to prioritise wealth defence in their political activity, dampening many of the social cleavages that divide and distract the poor. This becomes especially significant in democracies.

Democracy poses unique challenges to wealth defence. If oligarchs have laid down their arms in exchange for an armed state bound by the rule of law that provides a secure space for property and riches, what happens if the non-rich use the democratic state to threaten wealth? Dispersed participation power and concentrated wealth power are incompatible as a matter of democratic principle, and yet have coexisted in every democracy from the eighteenth century to the present. Indeed, modern market democracies have achieved some of the highest degrees of wealth inequality in human history: never before has so much equality coexisted with so much inequality.

The experience of the United States from the late eighteenth century to the present day tells us much about how this potentially fatal tension has been managed.

Taming democratic temper

As the wealthy class of the newly independent United States soon discovered, before democracy can coexist with extreme wealth stratification it must first be crippled.

The United States began as an amalgam of semi-sovereign states united by what amounted to a weak executive committee. Democracy was a hard-won local affair. The basic American building blocks were towns, and strong sentiments of individual liberty and equality had been whipped up in the mobilisation against the British crown. Having just broken free from external dictatorship, few leaders in the states were in the mood for strong domination from above. Had the post-War period been one of economic prosperity, the current US Constitution may not have been written at all—certainly not as early and as urgently as 1787. But the United States was gripped by a deep and painful economic crisis in the years immediately following the war. A recession combined with deflation plunged ordinary farmers, who had sacrificed mightily during the revolution, into severe tax and mortgage debt. 

This convergence of factors set the stage for a dangerous clash between participation power and wealth power in America. There were no sophisticated institutions of ‘financial intermediation’ such as banks or stock exchanges to mask the looming class conflicts between creditors and debtors. The richest Americans had personally purchased government bonds that funded the war and also held the mortgages on farms across the states. Small farmers were the ones who would have to repay them with interest. Enormous sums of oligarchic money were tied up in these legal contracts, and their owners fully expected to be paid. Taxation was the wealth defence mechanism for making sure the public debts would be covered in an orderly fashion, and bond holders who dominated the legislatures repeatedly raised taxes on the population to fund the payments they themselves would ultimately receive.2 To recover mortgage debt, the creditors turned to the coercive capacities of the civil state—courts and sheriffs seized the livestock and tools of farmers, and if necessary the farms themselves were taken in foreclosure. Recalcitrant Americans were thrown into debtors’ prisons to serve multi-year sentences while their families were pushed off their plots.

If all of this had been unfolding under an authoritarian regime, the story might have ended with the rich getting made whole and ordinary citizens suffering the pain of it. But the states were participatory democracies and the indebted many possessed vastly more votes than the creditor few. To complicate matters, the firm grip on politics long held by wealthy colonial gentlemen had loosened in the years after the war. In many states, ‘a new breed of politicians, often from lower social backgrounds’ began to win seats in the various legislatures.3 Wealth defence would be impossible under such extreme economic conditions if these powerful bodies were captured by the electorate and began to respond to their desperate pleas for fairness and relief. If the people was not stopped, the new nation threatened to devolve into an insecure economic space for those holding the most property.

The wealth defence crisis had two faces. One, represented by Rhode Island, was the money printers.4 These state legislatures solved the debt problem in favour of the poor by printing paper money that was worth far less than the gold and silver creditors had loaned and were demanding in repayment. This amounted to using democratic power to redistribute wealth from the few to the many. The other face was that of hard currency, represented most brutally by Massachusetts. These legislatures refused to print money and insisted on enforcing contracts, foreclosing on farms, and filling the prisons with debt scofflaws. To the horror of the rich, indebted farmers responded by taking up arms and attacking the state apparatus they saw as doing the bidding of the wealthy few.5

US elites were alarmed by the growing democratic threat to property. When word reached of the debtors’ uprising in Massachusetts, George Washington was beside himself:

The commotions, and temper of numerous bodies in the Eastern States, are equally to be lamented and deprecated. They exhibit a melancholy proof… that mankind when left to themselves are unfit for their own Government. I am mortified beyond expression.…6

Their solution was the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, which redesigned the Constitution to better insulate oligarchic wealth from democratic commotion. The new Constitution created a much stronger federal government with less democracy below and a tighter concentration of power at the top—including an upper chamber of senators that could constrain the people’s House, a Supreme Court of just nine persons that would play a particularly important role in property and wealth defence, and a single executive president.

Written in language intended to leave most powers to the states, the document nevertheless included an explicit statement of things states could not do, all of which were a direct reflection of the wealth defence scare that motivated many at the Convention. Article I, Section 8 gave Congress the power to establish ‘uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States’. This removed from the states the ability to intervene is this sensitive zone of contestation between creditors and debtors. Article I, Section 10 contained a laundry list of prohibitions on states that concisely summarised every injustice that hyper-democracy in the 1780s had perpetrated on the rich. No state shall ‘coin money; emit bills of credit; make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts’. The last two states to ratify the Constitution were the staunchest paper-money states—North Carolina resisted for 23 months after the first state signed, and Rhode Island held out for 30.7

The Framers of the Constitution thus built powerful oligarchic defences into the structure of democracy itself to impair the ability of the many poor to act democratically against the rich few. ‘Private wealth was now placed on a surer foundation than ever before in the youthful nation’s history’,8 as the Framers had ‘placed inequality at the centre of American constitutionalism’:

For the Framers, the protection of property meant the protection of unequal property and thus the insulation of both property and inequality from democratic transformation. Effective insulation, in their view, required wealth-based inequality of access to political power. It also meant that the illegitimacy of redistribution defined the legitimate scope of the state.9

But instead of explicitly saying that they were defending a rich minority against democratic redistribution—which might have sounded harsh and self-interested, given all the delegates were rich—the Framers reached for the moral high ground and cast the matter as a general defence of any minority against dangerous majorities. This concept would come back to haunt the body politic from the start of the twentieth century forward, which saw a new income tax on the rich, the New Deal and welfare and ‘entitlement’ programs created to cushion America’s underclass. 

Crises of wealth defence

Over the course of the nineteenth century wealth inequality in the US, already significant, widened dramatically. In the recession-hit early 1890s, popular forces led by William Jennings Bryan of the Democratic Party mobilised to impose a new federal income tax targeted exclusively on the wealthiest citizens—the first such tax to be imposed in peace time.10 The tax amounted to a political redistribution of America’s oligarchic wealth. After a cantankerous legislative debate, the bill passed both the House and the first line of wealth defence crafted by the Framers, the Senate. This left the last line of defence: the nine Justices of the Supreme Court. Within a year, the Court struck the tax down as unconstitutional by a vote of 5 to 4. Chief Justice Melville Fuller, writing for the majority, attacked the tax as a ‘communistic threat’. 

Over the next 18 years, the movement to outflank the wealth-defending Justices gained momentum, and in 1913 the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, followed immediately by the first permanent peacetime tax on the richest one-half of one percent of Americans. This victory—in the event, short lived11—marked the greatest democracy-driven setback American oligarchs had endured since the passage of paper money laws over 125 years earlier.

The next big crisis for wealth defence occurred in the wake of the Great Depression, when the government’s role in protecting ordinary and poor Americans expanded dramatically and an unprecedented level of wealth redistribution commenced. Many rich Americans, corporations, and associations championing the interests of both, bitterly opposed government intervention. But others recognised that the political-economic situation was fragile, and that failing to address the pains of poverty and dislocation could lead to far worse consequences.12 In this dangerous moment, wealth redistribution became vital not just to wealth defence, but to preempting radical ideologies and movements from challenging the foundational structure of the wealth edifice itself. 

The Second World War extended the sense of crisis still further. The New Deal and the rise of the American welfare state were responses to this particular historical moment. And yet those responses created institutional changes and material precedents that were at odds with the dominant ideology of the nation constructed during the Federal Convention. This contradiction has been at the heart of the conservative backlash against redistribution and the role of the state that gained momentum in the second half of the 20th century and continues with a vengeance into the 21st:

The modern welfare state does not fit easily within the Federalists’ conceptual framework. Property once provided the conceptual boundary to the legitimate scope of government. That boundary is now threatened by the changing meaning of property and the demands of equality which simultaneously challenge traditional rights of property and the traditional scope of the state. In many crucial respects, we have accepted the New Deal but rejected its conceptual underpinnings. As a country, we routinely engage in redistribution to ameliorate social ills, but we have not simply accepted property as a mere social construct to be redefined or redistributed without constraint. The status of property as boundary lingers despite its disintegration as a constitutional concept. We countenance redistribution as a means, but we have no consensus on a vision of the state that clearly defines redistribution as a legitimate goal.13

The glaring disconnect between the practice of democratic wealth redistribution and the principle of wealth defence, established decisively at the nation’s founding, has seethed below the surface of the national debate for decades. It meant that, when President Ronald Reagan announced in 1981 that ‘Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’, he found wide resonance, even amongst the poor.

The Wealth Defence Industry

Reagan and his successors dedicated themselves not merely to wealth defence—to preventing democratic majorities from distributing wealth—but to actively rolling back an entire state apparatus of poverty relief and government investment in social opportunities that had grown up over half a century—programs which boosted the non-rich and stalled the decades of gains the wealthy had enjoyed. The story of what happened next is by now well known. Suffice to say, whereas the middle decades of the twentieth century had been tremendously beneficial for average Americans and stagnant for the ultra rich, the four decades of economic growth between 1970 and 2010 saw incomes of the top tenth and top hundredth of 1% of Americans soar even as real incomes for average Americans remained flat.14

One under-appreciated reason for this was the rise of a multi-billion dollar Wealth Defence Industry. Comprised of armies of expensive tax lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, wealth management professionals, and think-tank ideologists (who were networked and organised domestically and transnationally through firms and client networks), the Industry ensured that, even as the myriad processes associated with economic ‘globalisation’ undermined the wealth-threatening power of workers and unions, the wealth defence capacities of the richest Americans increased rapidly.15

In addition to winning gains on the shop floor and in offices, average Americans had for decades been winning major democratic battles of wealth redistribution. Nowhere was this more evident than in taxation; and nowhere was the power of the Wealth Defence Industry more effective. During the decades after WWII, marginal tax rates rose like a grand staircase up the income distribution of the country. From 1954 to 1963 there were 24 tax brackets, with a top rate of 91 percent for incomes over three million dollars. Between 1958 and 2009 they were compressed into six. Nineteen of those twenty-four had been higher than the highest 2009 tax bracket of 35 percent. Someone who made $1 million or $1 billion in 2009 would now be taxed at the same low rate as someone who made $100,000 in 1958. Shifting the tax burden downward to the mass affluent and the upper middle class had the political benefit of broadening the base of resentment against high taxes and welfare spending. For America’s millionaires and billionaires, the elimination of the upper brackets represented a massive cut in wealth redistribution. If the 1958 tax structure had still been in place in 2007, the wealthiest Americans would have paid an additional $100 billion in taxes. Wealth defence pays.

The Wealth Defence Industry, and especially its lobbying arm, helped deflect damage away from the ultra-rich in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis in the United States. Unlike in the Great Depression, which dealt a major blow in terms of new regulation and financial costs for oligarchs, wealthy Americans were bailed out in this most recent crisis while the middle class and the poor faced chronic unemployment, financial collapse, bankruptcies, and property foreclosures. This imbalance was augmented as the Supreme Court rendered a series of decisions equating the deployment of wealth in politics to speech protected by the Bill of Rights. These decisions have facilitated the conversion of wealth power into political influence, particularly during elections.16

As the concentration of wealth has changed over the centuries, and as crises large and small have triggered action and presented political opportunities, democracy has repeatedly posed threats to those holding great fortunes. And the rich have responded with vigorous wealth defence efforts. Responding to clear wealth-defence failures, the Framers of the US Constitution arrived at an elegant formula for achieving wealth defence for the richest Americans. The interests of the wealthiest Americans would be lumped together with all other vulnerable minorities whose individual rights deserved protection against potentially tyrannical majorities. This would be accomplished initially by addressing a range of ominous democratic malfunctions that arose during immediately after the revolution, and later through a strong, property-favouring judiciary that could use the Bill of Rights to frame wealth defence as a civil right of the rich, ultimately safeguarding their deployment of massive wealth power as a form of ‘speech’ throughout the democratic process.

The Wealth Defence Industry is purely an expression of wealth power—a material as opposed to a mobilisational power resource. The aggregate wealth power of the masses is vastly larger, but is unavailable in sufficient liquidity and concentration to be of political significance. This is not the case for the ultra-rich, whose wealth power is concentrated, available, and oriented in the same wealth defence direction without the need for organisation. So strong and unanimous is oligarchs’ political demand for wealth defence that an entire industry populated by non-oligarchs has arisen in their service (and, in many instance, their own disservice, insofar as one of the greatest successes of the ultra-rich has been to shift tax burdens downward to the mass affluent, populated by millions of educated professionals, many of whom are gainfully employed in the Wealth Defence Industry). Oligarchs, once forced to defend their wealth personally through force of arms, can now effectively do so through wealth itself.

Link: Adam Curtis: The Vegetables Of Truth, How Modern Science Keeps You In Your Place

This is really just an excuse to show a wonderful film about vegetables.

But it is also about how modern science has radically changed in a way that hasn’t been fully understood.

How it has gone from promising extraordinary new worlds of the future - to become a powerfully conservative force that holds progress back and tends to keep people in their place.

And the odd role vegetables have played in showing how this has happened.

There are two - parallel - universes of science. One is the actual day-to-day work of scientists, patiently researching into all parts of the world and sometimes making amazing discoveries.

The other is the role science plays in the public imagination - the powerful effect it has in shaping how millions of ordinary people see the world.

Often the two worlds run together - with scientists from the first world giving us glimpses of their extraordinary discoveries. But what sometimes happens is that those discoveries - and what they promise - get mixed up with other social and political ideas. And then the science begins to change into something else.

This happened in a dramatic way in the second half of the twentieth century. Science did very well in the second world war and after the war ambitious scientists promised they could build a new kind of world.

But by the 1970s it became clear that there were unforeseen consequences. It started with chemical pollution - especially DDT killing wildlife. But it was nuclear power that really broke the faith in the optimistic view of science - with the disaster at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979.

What emerged instead was a powerful distrust of the idea that science and technocratic experts could make a better world. Here is a good example of that new mood. It’s an anti-nuclear rally held in New York after Three Mile Island.

Jane Fonda makes a celebrity appearance - and her interview articulates the mood very well. I also love the protest song at the end.

“Just give me the restless power of the wind

Give me the comforting glow of the wood fire

But please take all your atomic poison power away”

But if the scientists had been naive - so too was much of the counter-reaction.

The truth was that it might not have been the science itself that was at fault - but the way the science had been distorted and corrupted by the economic and political demands made on it.

Here is a section of a film I made about what went wrong with the building of the first big nuclear reactors. It shows how the companies building them - like General Electric - were under enormous economic pressure and political demands because of the cold war. And the technologists designed giant systems they knew were potentially unsafe.

Then came the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. All the distrust of big science that had been building up exploded out - and science became the problem. Not the solution any longer.

There was one man who articulated this new view of science very powerfully. He was a German political scientist called Ulrich Beck who wrote a book just before the Chernobyl explosion called Risk Society. In the wake of the disaster it captured the public imagination - and has been incredibly influential on social and political thinking in the west ever since.

The book was powerful because it laid out a new way of looking at the world. Beck said that what the scientists and technologists had been doing with these giant projects was not building a new and glorious future. Without realising it they had been doing the opposite - they had been creating enormous new dangers for the world.

Beck used the word risk. The scientists he said had been “manufacturing risks”.

In the past the big risks to human societies tended to be freak events of nature - like earthquakes and volcanoes and storms. But now the risks came from human ingenuity and ambition. Much of what had been created had potentially world-threatening side effects - like atomic fallout and ecological disasters.

The world had been turned upside down. It wasn’t nature that was the real threat to human existence any longer - it was now human science and technology that had the power to destroy nature and the whole of the planet. And it wasn’t going to stop - this was a new and growing danger.

It meant - Beck said - that the whole role of politics would inevitably change. In the past politicians’ main aim had been to create a more equal society. That was now in decline. In the new “risk society” their main focus should be to create safety.

Beck didn’t mince his words:

Whereas the utopia of equality contains a wealth of substantial and positive goals of social change, the utopia of the risk society remains peculiarly negative and defensive. Basically, one is no longer concerned with attaining something ‘good’, but rather with preventing the worst.

The dream of the old society is that everyone wants and ought to have a share of the pie. The utopia of the risk society is that everyone should be spared from poisoning

That was written in 1986 - and it is remarkably prescient. Because that short paragraph pretty much describes the present day mood in our society. A world where individuals are constantly calibrating risks in their lives, while politicians are expected to anticipate and avoid all future risks and dangers.

And everyone gives up on the idea of creating equality, which allows inequality to increase massively.

Beck’s book is extraordinary - because he came from the liberal left. Yet he is basically saying that in the face of these new potential risks we will have to move away from the political idea of progress and social reform - and instead hunker down in the brace position and try and anticipate all dangers that might be coming at us out of the darkness.

To be fair to Beck he is ambiguous in the book about the kind of pessimistic and anxious society that will arise from this new approach. But he says it is inevitable. And in a way it is a very honest depiction of what happened to the liberal mind set at the end of the 1980s - how it retreated into a gloomy pessimism where the only response to events is “oh dear.”

I think the truth probably is that it was the baby boomers losing their youth - and finding themselves unable to face the fact of their own mortality - they started to project their fears onto the rest of society. But somehow people like Beck transformed this into a grand pessimistic ideology.

I want to put up part of an extraordinary documentary made during the events of 1986 that dramatically shows just how different our attitudes to risk used to be. It is the record of the group of Soviet technologists who volunteered to go into the ruined reactor core at Chernobyl after the disaster.

It is extraordinary because they all knew they would die. Their protection against the radiation - as you see in the film - was minimal. It consisted of taping up their cuffs and trouser legs and not much else. But they went in because it was the only way to find out how to contain the disaster.

It is so moving because they are men from an older world. To them risk is irrelevant. They believe in something grander - bigger than their own lives. There is also the most fantastic remote controlled camera - it is mounted on a toy tank and its images are great.

The idea of the Risk Society gave modern science and technology a real kicking. Because they were the ones - it said - who were mainly creating the risks.

But it also allowed science to invent a new role for itself. Because a new breed of scientists came forward and said that they knew how to analyse the dangers - and anticipate the risks. They wouldn’t try and build dazzling new futures, instead they would keep the world safe by spotting the dangers before they arrived.

It was the beginning of a modern science which now permeates the modern world and whose full dimensions I don’t think we’ve fully recognised. It has become central to all sorts of areas - from medicine and public health, through climate change, finance and the welfare state - and even to the anticipation of terrorism and crime.

What the scientists and technologists do is look for patterns, associations and correlations in large amounts of data. It has permeated the public imagination mostly through the regular reports that find associations between diseases and human behaviour. Journalists love them - the one I particularly liked was the scientific report that said that snoring gave you cancer.

But this science does have powerful roots. It was just this kind of search for correlations that allowed scientists to prove that there was a link between smoking and cancer. It was a piece of scientific investigation that changed the world - and has saved millions of people from an early death.

It was work like that which has allowed modern science to rise up in a different form - and again become central to society - because now it was warning us of the dangers. Which is good.

But there is a weakness in this scientific approach that can allow it to be shaped and manipulated by wider social and political forces.

This is because if you look for correlations you often have no real idea of why something is happening - just that it is somehow associated. The warning phrase is “correlation does not mean causation.”

The scientists know this very well - and they constantly try and cross-check to see if the correlation is real or spurious by accounting for all sorts of variables. They look for hidden factors that might really be the reason for something happening and try and adjust the data for these. They have a good name for these hidden factors - “residual confounders.”

But the problem is that they are always trying to imagine what the hidden variables are - and the choice of what you do imagine and what you don’t is inevitably shaped by wider social and political views of the world.

Which bring us to the vegetables.

Seven months ago a scientific report came out that illustrates this danger very clearly.

It was from University College London and it said said that people who eat seven or more portions of vegetables every day - rather than the recommended five - live longer. And it wasn’t just a little bit longer, one of the authors of the report said that the effect was “staggering.”

The claims were powerful. It said that if you ate up to five portions a day it would reduce your risk of death by 29%, but if you ate seven or more portions the risk was reduced by 42%

As a result the report got a lot of publicity - with people arguing that the national guidelines ought to be changed. Here’s some of the TV and newspaper coverage.

But if you look into the report, two rather surprising things emerge.

First that the data is not really strong enough to support the confident conclusions of the researchers. It is, as one scientist not connected with the report told me, far more a leap of faith than a scientifically proven conclusion.

And secondly the scientists who did the research may have ignored another - and very different - conclusion that the data might point to. This is that if you want to live longer you should change society.

To do the report, the researchers had taken data from the Health Surveys of England. Every year a random group of people are asked questions about their lives - and one of the sections asks them how much fruit and vegetables they have eaten in the past twenty four hours.

The researchers took the answers from one of those surveys twelve years ago and compared the fruit and vegetable answers with who had died over the past twelve years. And that is basically it. The report was based on what sixty-five thousand people said they had eaten on one single day a long time ago.

I asked Professor Tom Sanders, who is Professor of Nutrition at Kings College London, about the research behind the report.

He was pretty scathing. The data was dubious he said - because there is no way of finding out if the respondents had lied. He had a good line - “Men lie about smoking. Women lie about vegetables”.

But far more importantly, he said, was the fact that they might have misinterpreted the data. That the reason that some people in the survey live longer may not have anything directly to do with eating more vegetables. It might be that eating more vegetables is the sort of thing people higher up the social scale do.

And people in higher social classes tend to live longer - because of all sorts of other factors, like access to better health-care throughout their life, less stress, living in nicer neighbourhoods with less pollution. All the kinds of things that you tend to get if you have more money and more freedom.

I pointed out to Professor Sanders that the researchers said in the report that they had “adjusted the data for social class”. But he was dismissive of this - saying that the data they used to do this was “incredibly weak” and at times non-existent.

And if you read the report, buried away is an admission that one of the most dramatic correlations - that people who eat canned rather than fresh fruit die much earlier - might be due to some other factor completely.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with eating healthily. And it is very sensible to eat fruit and vegetables regularly.

But something else is going on here. The scientists behind the report are playing on our anxieties and saying you must eat even more healthy food so as to avoid dying early. When in fact the data might be pointing to the very opposite.

That the way to avoid dying early is to reform and restructure society so poor people have more access not just to better food - but to all the kinds of opportunities that richer people do. These are a range of social factors from health care and housing and education to social isolation, stress, unemployment, and higher-risk occupations. These are the sorts of things that also affect how long people live.

To lump it all onto vegetables is unfair.

Science and scientists do all kinds of wonderful things. But when they venture into the social and political world they tend to get bent the way the ideological wind is blowing.

Once it was to support politicians trying to expand their power by remaking society. Now - in an age of individualism - it is to keep us in our place by promoting the idea that we should just focus on ourselves and our bodies. And not think about the wider problems of growing inequality and the unfairnesses that brings.

The scientists are saying - just go and eat another banana or cabbage and you’ll be alright. They are loading everything onto the isolated individual.

Such reports - and there are many - keep us locked inside the anxieties of the “risk society”. While the truth is that you might have a better chance of living longer if you banded together and used that collective power to change society. It would also be a lot more fun than laboriously counting vegetables.

As an antidote - here is a beautiful film about vegetables. It’s a documentary made in 1972 about a leek-growing contest in Newcastle. It is very camp - with lots of men discussing the length and diameter of their leeks.

It is also all about statistics and numbers - because it is the measurements that will decide the winner. But in this case it’s not about the fear of death. It’s all about pride and glory in the vegetables - among men who lead the unhealthiest of lives. Constantly smoking and drinking as they talk about their beloved vegetables.

Link: Another Movement

On the eve of the publication of her new book, ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate,’ Klein sat down with Liam Barrington-Bush at the Peoples Social Forum in Ottawa, to talk about where she finds hope in a world that can sometimes feel very bleak. She reminds us that in a culture that treats people as consumers and relationships as transactions, ‘we’re not who we were told we were.’

Barrington-Bush: In your recent piece in the Nation, you wrote: “Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate change is real—let alone the confidence to believe that a different way of living is possible.” What has helped you to believe that a different way of living is possible?

Klein: I think part of it is just having been lucky enough to have seen other ways of living and to have lived differently myself. To know that not only is living differently not the end of the world, but in many cases, it has enabled some of the happiest times of my life.

I think the truth is that we spend a lot of time being afraid of what we would lose if we ever took this crisis seriously. I had this experience when I had been living in Argentina for a couple of years; I came back to the US because I had agreed to do this speech at an American university. It was in Colorado and I went directly from Buenos Aires, which was just on fire at that moment; the culture was so rich, the sense of community was so strong. It was the most transformative experience of my life to be able to be part of that.

So I end up staying at a Holiday Inn, looking out at a parking lot, and it’s just so incredibly grim. I go to this class and I do my spiel. I was talking about Argentina and the economic crisis. At this point the US economy’s booming and nobody thinks anything like this could ever happen to them. And this young woman says, “I hear what you’re saying, but why should I care?”

And it was so funny because people don’t usually say that out loud. Like, they may think it, but she was like: ‘…I don’t understand why I should care, because, I mean, I have a really great life. I drive to school and I drive to Walmart and I drive home.’ And I just thought, that doesn’t sound like that great a life, you know?

Arundhati Roy tells Americans that she feels sorry for them; that she feels like, ‘you’re staying in your house to protect your washing machine.’ The truth is, if you have been exposed to other ways of living that have more community in them, where doors are more open to one another, first of all, you want to shop less, because you’re not shopping to fulfil all these other needs you’re not getting fulfilled. You’re not shopping for identity and you’re not shopping for a sense of community.

There’s a virtuous cycle that sets in when we build community; whether we build community in movements or in other ways, because I do feel like we are shopping to fill this void a lot of the time. I always find the only thing that makes you not want to constantly fill that void is if something else is filling it, you’re just too busy, you forget.

So that lack of imagination just has to do with what we’ve been exposed to. That’s why Occupy Wall Street, for all its flaws, was such a transformative experience for so many people. Because it was that moment where it’s like, ‘Oh! We’re not who we were told we were!’ It was that feeling of surprise that there are so many other people in this city who just want to talk to strangers and connect in this way, unmediated.

In the same article you wrote, in reference to your own ‘rootless’ life, that the poet Wendell Berry encouraged you to “Stop somewhere. And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.” How do you see the relationship between a sense of place and the solutions to something as massively daunting as either climate change or capitalism?

Since the ‘70s, the icon of environmentalism has been the globe, the earth from space. And it was a really deracinated relationship with the earth, it was literally the astronaut’s view of the planet – this god-like posture – we’re looking down at earth.

A lot of the mistakes of the Big Green groups, I think, can be traced to this idea that environmentalism is about this whole planet. So if it’s about the whole planet, you can offset your carbon pollution in Richmond, to a carbon-offset in Honduras. The world becomes this chessboard.

I don’t think you can love a whole planet. I think what’s driving the most powerful resistance movements is love of particular places. And those places happen to have the largest pools of carbon underneath them and those places, because of technology, are linking up with other places.

That’s why Wendell Berry says, ‘each of our job is to love our place more than any other place.’ And if everybody did that we’d be fine. Nobody needs to love the whole world!

I was in Perth, Ontario recently. In some ways, Perth is just another North American small town, but it is also a place where a strong localism is bringing together a real mix of people; elements of the traditional farming community, hippie back-to-the-landers, off-grid survivalists, Transition Towners, traditional food bank volunteers, alongside those working on more participatory and sustainable ways of addressing the community’s food needs. Do you think this kind of place-based solution has the potential to bridge some of the political divides that have made so many larger scales of change impossible for so long?

I don’t know if it holds solutions, but it certainly has potentials that are harder to realise in cities. Especially I think in farming communities you can definitely overcome left-right divides, because often you’re drawing on a tradition and a history of stewardship. So there’s a real disconnect between that philosophy, which has very deep roots, and modern capitalism, which is so ‘use-it-up-and-throw-it-out.’

Also around climate organising, people often find that if you’re able to speak to and revive that conservative tradition of stewardship, it’s an opportunity to cross political lines. And even if those conservative farmers don’t even believe climate change is real, they still believe in the principles of protecting the land and protecting the water, and the responsibility to leave the land better than you found it. So if you believe in that, it doesn’t even really matter if you believe in climate change, because you’re not going to frack your land.

Are there any particular stories you have heard or experienced in your travels that give you hope for us getting out of the current mess?

I think the movement that I have found most inspiring in recent years is… the movement against the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline in British Columbia. That’s not because it’s more inspirational than other movements, I just found it to be – and still find it to be – one of the most positive and beautiful movements I’ve ever been a part of because it is this amazing combination of resisting something that people don’t want, but also just a total celebration of place.

I really felt so lucky to witness this process where people in that very special part of the world, really fell more deeply in love with their place and created these incredible coalitions to defend it, like the Save the Fraser Declaration, which more than a hundred First Nations signed.

Fighting these extreme extraction projects becomes a real space for historical healing. We use these words and we have these symbolic marches around reconciliation between settler and Indigenous peoples and it’s very empty. But what actually played out in BC is the very concrete realisation among non-Indigenous British Columbians that they are tremendously lucky that so much of their province is on unceded Indigenous land.

Against this backdrop and history of conflict – which still exists – you would hear a non-native farmer say, ‘I’m so grateful to my First Nations neighbours for never giving up these rights and defending these rights, because this is going to be what protects my water.’

So that’s extraordinary! I can’t believe how much I’ve seen my country change in such a short time. It’s that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are fighting for what is most essential – they’re fighting for their children’s health, they’re fighting for their water, they’re fighting for their land and they understand – we understand – that our fates are truly interconnected.

So these words that we use, like solidarity and all of this, suddenly become really concrete. It is literally that if we do not deal with this past, of who created this crisis and who is largely responsible and how’s that going to translate into policy and resources, then ultimately we’re all cooked.

Another movement I’ve found inspiring this past few years is just how quickly the fossil fuel divestment movement has spread in campuses and cities. I think it speaks to the fact that people understand that there are power dynamics at play in the climate fight that a lot of the Big Green NGOs have tried to paper over. Where the discourse was just like, ‘we’re all in this together, everybody’s going to do this, the billionaires are going to join together with the Hollywood celebrities, are going to join together with ExxonMobil and the Nature Conservancy and we’ll fix this together!’

So what was really inspiring about being part of the launch of that movement was realising that people were so up for this! It was like they were just waiting for someone to ask!

I don’t think that this tactic is going to bankrupt ExxonMobil or change everything, by any means, but what I found inspiring was seeing the readiness of large numbers of people to use tactics that are significantly more confrontational than the ones that the traditional green movement had been offering. So I think that that’s a really hopeful sign for the future.

Are there any particular themes or patterns you’ve picked up between these and other sources of inspiration, that you think could offer hints to people wanting to take action themselves?

I think another inspiring movement is the rise of renewable energy in Germany. That is a really important case study because this is a post-industrial, Western, large, very powerful economy, that in the past decade has made a dramatic shift towards renewable energy, primarily wind and solar.

But what’s really interesting about it, is that it is the small-scale, decentralised, cooperatively-owned aspect of the transition that is fastest-spreading, that has people most excited. That’s an important pattern. Energy democracy is a phrase more and more people are using to describe this sort of phenomenon, where it isn’t just about switching from fossil fuel to so-called green energy, it’s also a power shift in who owns and controls the source of the power, where the resources go.

So what is driving the movement in Germany is not just that people don’t want nuclear power, they don’t want coal; it’s that they want to have control over their energy, they want their resources and the profits to stay in their communities. And this is happening in the age of austerity where it’s a big deal if you can actually get resources to communities. So these are very much pro-democracy movements. They’re not just about where your energy is coming from and what colour it is, it’s really about self-determination and community control.

And there are ways of designing government policy that decentralise power. So you look at Germany; none of this would be happening if Germany didn’t have a bold national feed-in tariff plan. You couldn’t just do it ad hoc, at the local level. That would not get to you to what Germany has done, which is twenty-five percent of their electricity coming from renewable energy and that’s going to keep expanding.

You need those bold policies and you also need to say no to fossil fuels – you need regulation. So you need to have a relationship with government in order to win those policies. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be in government, by the way, because German Prime Minister Angela Merkel is no lefty, but the anti-nuclear movement and the climate movement in Germany is strong enough that they have won this, which is extraordinary.

Similarly, I look at what’s happening in Spain with this transition from the street movement of the Indignados, to Podemos, a political party that is intersecting with traditional politics, but in a new way. So I think that’s another pattern that we’re starting to see, of finding ways to intersect with policy, with the state, but at the same time to decentralise power and deepen local democracy.

Link: Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything"

Suzanne Goldenberg: The climate-change movement is making little headway against corporate vested interests, says the author of Shock Doctrine. But how does she think her new book, This Changes Everything, will help galvanise people?

Naomi Klein is the star of the new American left. At 44, the writer and activist has twice written blockbusters combining ground-level reporting and economic analysis that challenged people to take a hard look at what they took for granted: their shopping choices, America’s place in the world, and the devastating effects of arcane trade policy and rampant free market ideology. Along the way she gained a following that spans academics, celebrities and street and factory protesters.

Her first book, No Logo, about the power of brands over sweatshop workers in Asia who made the products (and the consumers in America and Europe who consumed them), politicised a generation of twentysomethings. It became the handbook of the anti- globalisation protests, and inspired two Radiohead albums.

Seven years later, her second book, Shock Doctrine, analysed how wars, coups and natural disasters were used as a pretext to impose so-called “free market” measures. Now Klein is back, writing about capitalism, only this time the fate of the entire planet is at stake. With her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Klein hopes to set off the kind of powerful mass movement that could – finally – produce the radical changes needed to avoid a global warming catastrophe and fix capitalism at the same time. She argues that we have all been thinking about the climate crisis the wrong way around: it’s about capitalism – not carbon – the extreme anti-regulatory version that has seized global economies since the 1980s and has set us on a course of destruction and deepening inequality.

“I think we are on a collision course,” she says. Twenty-five years ago, when the first climate scientist was called to testify to Congress and make global warming a policy challenge, there might have still been time for big industries to shrink their carbon footprints. But governments at the time were seized with the idea that there should be no restraints on industry. “During that time,” Klein writes, “we also expanded the road from a two lane, carbon-spewing highway to a six-lane superhighway.”

When we meet in her Toronto home, Klein is juggling a schedule that combines the standard author book readings and television interviews and planning for an event in New York City billed as the biggest climate march ever seen. Her husband, film-maker Avi Lewis, is out shooting a companion film due for release in January. The two text back and forth during our chat.

Klein does not easily fit into most people’s view of a committed environmentalist. She drives a car (it is a hybrid). She flies, already a lot more than most people, and is set to rack up air miles that would make her, by her own admission, “a climate criminal”. There is a brightly coloured plastic playhouse in the garden that was probably made in China. Yet she confesses to getting weepy when she thinks about the future under climate change.

In a long conversation over the dining table, Klein says she is not about to purge her life of plastics or fossil fuels. She says she is not going to be trapped into “gotcha games” about personal habits. And she is definitely not going to subscribe to the idea that climate change ranks above all other causes.

“I think there has been this really bad habit of environmentalists being insufferably smug, where they are sort of saying: ‘This is the issue that beats all other issues’ or, ‘Your issue doesn’t matter because nothing matters if the earth is fried.’” Klein says committed environmentalists aren’t her target anyway. “What I hope is less about what the greens will do, but what people who don’t consider themselves part of the green movement will do,” she says. “This book is not written for the environmental movement. It is written much more for people who would never read a book about climate change but are engaged with economic justice of other kinds.”

That is where Klein believes she can do the most good. “I want to act, if I can, as a bridge for people who read Shock Doctrine or No Logo. People who are sitting out for whatever reasons.”

Klein admits that even with her reputation for producing brainy economic analysis, and a crack research team to which she gives generous credit in the book and in conversation, it took three years of “marinating” in the material. “I have amazing research help. Basically what I spend my money on is research,” she says. “The way in which people talk about climate is just so wonky and so abstract and such a boys’ club that it makes a lot of women just roll their eyes or feel that they are somehow not qualified,” she says. “I certainly had to fight that feeling in myself in order to write about it.”

The idea of writing about climate change took hold of Klein around the time of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit – legendary now as a failure of international diplomacy. The summit of world leaders, convening soon after the US had its first “green president” in Barack Obama, was supposed to put the major economies on a glide path to cutting emissions.

Klein came to the meeting planning to write about the great fight between rich and poor countries over the historic responsibility the US and Europe bore for causing climate change. She had dared to hope at one point that a climate deal would be the great equaliser – compensating Africa and Asia for colonialism. But the summit collapsed under the weight of those expectations. Leaders from Africa and small south Pacific Island states, which are slowly drowning under rising sea levels, wanted a more aggressive action that would limit the temperature rise to 1.5C; leaders from rich countries deemed the proposal bad for businesses and rejected it for fear it could cost them votes.

“I wasn’t prepared for the naming of that inaction by the industrialised world as racism,” Klein says. “I was struck by the fact that African delegates were using words such as genocide, describing a two-degree temperature target as allowing Africa to burn.” She pauses. “I found the Copenhagen experience pretty devastating.”

It was a difficult time for Klein personally as well. After the publication of Shock Doctrine, she was on the road for almost two years. She barely saw her husband. While she was travelling the world giving speeches and being hailed as an inspirational figure, Klein found herself in a rut. “I think I was profoundly depressed about 2008-2009,” she says. “I have always told myself that I would not spread hopelessness.” There are figures on the American left who just get up on stage and do these doom and apocalyptic presentations and it can be quite compelling. But I have seen it enough that I have told myself that if I ever get to that point, I will stay home.” She became convinced it was time to retreat, at least for a while. “I just didn’t feel that I had anything to offer, where I wasn’t just indulging my own despair.”

There were other difficulties. Klein writes in the book of the surprising realisation that she did want children after all, and of her struggles through what she calls the “fertility factory” and miscarriages before she finally became pregnant. Her son, Toma, turned two this summer. The book is dedicated to him. But as she was preparing for publication, Klein was diagnosed, and operated on, for thyroid cancer; she says flatly she will not discuss the illness beyond that.

For readers of Klein’s earlier works – or of Thomas Piketty’s analysis of inequality – the central message of the book will sound familiar. Capitalism, since it was unshackled by the deregulation of the 1980s, has widened the gap between rich and poor. The top 3% held 55% of all wealth last year, up from 45% in 1989. The bottom 90% controlled 24.7% of wealth, according to statistics released this month by the Federal Reserve.

“It is not like everything is fine except for the problem that the temperature is going up a little bit,” Klein says. “If the only problem with capitalism was this slight temperature increase, we would really be cooked. But the fact is that there are lots of problems with this system, and on top of all of those problems, it is destabilising our planet’s life support system.”

Klein believes the gap between the 1% and everyone else and the powerlessness of local governments to take control are casualties of global capital. To follow the course of action she prescribes would require a hostile takeover of large parts of the environmental movement. But that would be entirely warranted, it seems. Environmental groups have wasted time trying to recruit big business and billionaires to adopt pro-climate measures, she says. In the meantime, economies have continued to spew out carbon pollution, making a climate fix far more difficult.

“We need an ideological battle. It is still considered politically unthinkable just to introduce straight-up, polluter-pays punitive measures – particularly in the US.” To Klein, environmentalists should have just gone to war on business, and on the whole concept of capitalism.

In a devastating chapter, she details how the US’s biggest environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, earned money from oil and gas drilling on a parcel of Texas land it had set aside for conservation. She writes about the nightmarish scenarios surrounding geoengineering, or hacking the planet, by spraying seawater into the sky to create cloud cover, or simulating a volcanic eruption to fill the lower atmosphere with ash.

Elsewhere, Klein takes on Richard Branson for failing to live up to his promise to set aside $3bn to fight climate change. “So much hope was put in this parade of billionaires to try and reconcile capitalism with climate,” she says. “When Branson entered the climate game, he posited it specifically as an alternative to regulation. He said ‘the governments aren’t going to do this, we’re going to do this. Go to the UN climate summit in a couple of weeks and it’s all going to be the new green economy and the head of Bank of America sitting down with the president of Mexico – and we are all going to do it together.’” She remains irritated. “That is a dangerous idea at this stage of history. We now have two decades to measure that model. We are not talking about a theory here, we are talking about a track record. I think it’s fair to say: ‘OK, we tried it your way and we don’t have another decade to waste.”

In truth, Klein is vague in her book and our conversation about exactly how this would come about. In the book she talks about “an effervescent moment” – when popular protests converge to bring about real change – which comes after a section in the book titled “Magical Thinking”. There is a curious failure to really get to grips with questions about a real-world solution – Klein must have anticipated being asked. Especially given that she has often been acutely focused on what popular movements need to do to bring about concrete change; her message to Occupy, for instance, was that the movement needed to impose clear structures and institutions. If capitalism is going to destroy the world, why wouldn’t capitalism fix itself – if only for its own survival?

“I don’t know if capitalism wants anything. The system itself doesn’t think as an entity – it thinks as a collection of self-interested profit-seeking units.” Asked why Obama is such a peripheral figure in her book, Klein is ambiguous. “I do think Obama is interesting but more in the sense of an absence,” she says. “Obama should have used the economic bailout of 2009 to impose new rules on car companies,” she says. (In fact, Obama used the bailout to spend up to $100bn on home retrofits, subways, and other climate-friendly measures. Klein overlooks these entirely.) “The fact that Obama blew that moment, to me, is one of the great tragedies of our times.”

The fix she proposes broadly relies on scattered groups of climate organisers, grassroots and indigenous people’s groups that have been ready to take on corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. Klein admits that most environmental groups are too white, male, and middle class to connect with women, African-Americans, Latinos and the poor who will bear the brunt of climate change. She recalls that in their first manifestos, the Occupy protesters never even mentioned global warming.

Klein is on the board of one of those emerging grassroots groups: 350.orghas played a lead role in reframing a mundane pipeline project, the Keystone XL, until it was seen as one of the most critical environmental decisions of Obama’s presidency. The Keystone XL project, meant to transport tar sands crude from the vast Alberta tar sands, would probably be well on its way to completion, if the protests by and Nebraska landowners had not made the project a national issue. Obama has repeatedly put off making a decision about the pipeline. But the deciding factor in that delay was almost certainly the wealthy Democratic donors pushing behind the scenes, and threatening to cut off election funding.

Even so, Klein continues to sees the Keystone fight, widespread local protests against fracking and campus divestment campaigns as the way forward on climate change. She argues there is little scope for individuals on their own to accomplish much, giving the examples of Toronto’s impressive carbon-cutting efforts. “It’s been kind of disastrous,” she says. “While we are all doing these green things, our country’s emissions are soaring because of the tar sands. People start feeling kind of like jerks. We are just sort of like suckers.”

She goes so far as to lump centrist environmental leaders together with groups such as the Heartland Institute, which denies the existence of climate change. “Between the Heartlanders who recognise that climate change is a profound threat to our economic and social systems and therefore deny its scientific reality, and those who claim climate change requires only minor tweaks to business-as-usual and therefore allow themselves to believe in its reality, it’s not clear who is more deluded,” Klein writes in the book.

Those are fighting words. Over the past few years, the oil and coal lobbies and, increasingly, super-rich ultra-conservatives in America have spent close to $1bn a year building a network of rightwing organisations that have blocked efforts to cut the emissions that cause climate change – often by claiming that climate change is not even happening. More than half of the Republicans elected to Congress now deny the existence of climate change.

There are already signs of a pushback on Twitter from some environmental bloggers, even before the book’s release. But Klein – who over the years has endured pro-corporate backlash of her two earlier books and a ferocious assault for criticising Israel’s conduct against the Palestinians, says she is ready for it. “I think I have been through attacks that are far more personal and far more intense than what I am going to experience with this book.”

She says she sees a new breed of climate activist, ready to go after corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. “They are going after the fossil fuel companies directly as opposed to just trying to go into business with them and gently cajole them into doing the right thing,” she says.

At the same time she argues there has been a shift in attitudes about how people treat one another.

“I am not in despair. I am excited by what I am seeing. I think that the task is enormous. I think we are nowhere close to where we need to be, but I think we are on a track. There is a track,” she says.

• This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein is published by Allen Lane on 16 September.

Link: Charity is not a Substitute for Justice

Poor Americans need higher salaries, not food drives.

On November 15, thousands of people in San Francisco worked together to make an ailing child’s wish come true. Miles Scott, a five-year-old boy recovering from leukaemia, dreamed of becoming "Batkid". At the behest of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, a charity which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses, San Franciscans staged an elaborate series of events for Scott and his family. He rode in the Batmobile, rescued a damsel in distress, and received national press coverage and a personal messagefrom President Barack Obama.

The public effort for Scott shows what a difference kindness and compassion can make for a family in need. But one of the reasons the Batkid outreach was so moving is that it is such a rare occurrence.

In an era where bad luck is mistaken for bad character, the plight of those worse off tends to be ignored or portrayed as a perverse form of retribution. Poverty becomes both a crime and its own punishment, even for children. In many US schools, a child who cannot come up with lunch money is expected to go hungry. In Texas, a 12-year-old’s lunch was thrown in the trash because he could not come up with 30 cents.

The outreach for Batkid was celebrated as a triumph of the human spirit. But what it demonstrated is how much better society could be if generosity were consistently applied towards all, instead of concentrated into brief celebratory affairs.

"Charity is no substitute for justice withheld," Saint Augustine once declared. This is painfully clear in San Francisco and its surrounding area, home to some of the highest income inequality in the country.

"San Francisco itself is turning into a private, exclusive club," noted Anisse Gross in The New Yorker. “The city, long reputed as a haven for provocateurs and cultural innovators, has quickly transformed into a playground for the rich, where tech money sends rental prices soaring as the less fortunate tenants battle it out with the rent board.”

Capricious generosity is not a replacement for a living wage, nor is it a basis for a functioning society.

As journalist Alyssa Rosenberg argues, Batkid was supported by the tech community, who saw the event as a way to indulge in their own superhero fantasies. Yet the broader message of the tech community is that most children do not deserve to be saved. Silicon Valley is a region of “masters and servants”, where homelessness has increased 8 percent, as salaries skyrocket. A proposal for Silicon Valley to secede and therefore deny taxpayer money to social programmes benefiting low-income residents, including children, was met by many with approval.

Charity as a substitute

Charity, as a supplement to justice, should be applauded. But charity as a substitute for justice is neither charity nor justice. It is cruelty.

The same week that the nation cheered a charitable effort to make one child’s wish come true, the largest employer in the US held a charity drive for some of its own workers. Wal-Mart, whose six heirs to the company fortune have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans, pays its workers salaries so low that many qualify for food stamps.

The costs are then transferred to taxpayers. A report by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated that one Wal-Mart Supercenter employing 300 workers could cost taxpayers at least $904,000 annually.

Yet instead of raising salaries to allow employees to live above the dole, Wal-Mart encourages charity - a common panacea to social plight. Universities employing adjunct professors, who are also paid below poverty wages, have held similar food drives for their employees.

In September, Margaret Mary Vojtko, a Duquesne University professor, who had worked at the school for 25 years, died in abject poverty with an annual salary of less than $10,000. Responding to accusations of callousness, Duquesne noted that they had offered Vojtko charity, such as an offer to fix her furnace. A Slatearticle promising the “real story” of Vojtko argued that she brought her troubles upon herself by refusing Duquesne’s gifts while working with a growing movement of adjuncts attempting to unionise.

In other words, Vojtko refused charity while pursuing justice. This is not a position to condemn.

Fiscal stability that relies on gifts is not stability. It is a guarantee of insecurity: income based not on work but on whim. Capricious generosity is not a replacement for a living wage, nor is it a basis for a functioning society. Charity is no substitute for justice.

Living on a gamble

In rural Missouri, there is a store called Nick’s Gun and Pawn. Locals can trade their weapons for household items, or vice versa.

Attempts to ensure stability and independence for citizens - such as affordable healthcare - are decried as government “charity” while corporate charity is proffered as a substitute for a living wage.

It is one of many examples of one of the most overlooked stories in the great recession: the explosion of pawn shops and payday loan outlets throughout the US. Between 2009 and 2011, the rate of Americans using high-cost nonbank credit soared to 14 percent, and included a rise in population segments once considered economically advantaged, but now unable to afford daily needs.

Pawn shops and payday loans are the flip side of the US’ turn to charity over justice. Both phenomena speak to a seemingly permanent impermanence: The replacement of a reliable salary for hard work, with high-cost gambles and unpredictable donations.

In much of the US, possessions are not things you own. They are disaster protection, what you trade to survive. The consequences are not only material but psychological. When you are constantly gambling, the future comes to look like a bad bet.

Journalist Gillian Tett notes that poorer Americans, living check to check, are “more likely to perceive the future as a chaotic series of short-term cycles”. When people are expected towork unpaid for the promise of work, the advantage goes to those immune from the hustle: the owners over the renters, the salaried over the contingent. Attempts to ensure stability and independence for citizens - such as affordable healthcare - are decried as government “charity” while corporate charity is proffered as a substitute for a living wage.

"We don’t plan long-term because if we do, we’ll just get our hearts broken," wrote Linda Walther Tirado, a blogger who described her own struggle with poverty in a much circulated essay. “It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”

"Taking what you can get" is also the path pursued by corporations and people who prefer cheap acts of charity to long-term investments in justice. It is a path that encourages citizens to depend on arbitrary generosity while decrying stable programmes that help people through tough times. It trades in racial stereotypes, portraying the poor as lazy, violent and “undeserving” of either assistance or the benefit of the doubt.

On November 23, East Saint Louis, an impoverished city with a high rate of gun violence, offered a trade to city residents: bring in your gun and receive a $100 gift certificate at a local grocery store. At 9 am, a long line had formed of residents with guns in hands. Within ten minutes, $10,000 of grocery store gift cards had been given away.

Some were surprised by the outcome. They should not have been. Ours is an economy of survival. Violence is often the last resort for people out of options. When presented with options, they chose food.

Charity, for the giver, is the trade of cash for a moral fix. As the Make-a-Wish showed, charity can be beautiful. But it is an investment in the present, not the future. If you value the future - if you value a society where people can imagine their future - work for justice.

Link: The Front Lines of Ferguson

I don’t know what made me buy a plane ticket to St. Louis at 1:15 a.m. on Tuesday.

Maybe it was remembering that feeling of helplessness and guilt after learning of the Trayvon Martin verdict while embarking on a carefree cross-country road trip. Maybe it was Eric Garner, who died only weeks ago in New York, after a police officer wrestled him to the ground and choked him. Maybe it was going to the south side of Chicago last month, stepping into Trinity United Church of Christ, made famous by the union of Barack Obama and now–pastor emeritus Jeremiah Wright in 2008. Maybe it was hearing the church’s announcements about the shooting and murder of kids from its congregation that I’d later read about in the news that evening.

But perhaps it was just me. A black boy turned black man who finds it increasingly miraculous that I made it to 27. A black man with a black mother who was alive in the South for the final push of Jim Crow. And a black man with a black mother with black parents who would have done anything so that their children and grandchildren wouldn’t have to live a life in fear of the dogs. And the hoses. And the bombs.

Either way, learning that an 18-year-old named Michael Brown had been shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and left in the street to die, pushed me to a breaking point.

It felt like I had to come to Ferguson. Not as a journalist, but as a black man fed up with the idea of black boys who are unable to become black men.

I knew I couldn’t tell my mom. She’d be proud I was here, but it would also worry her to no end. And it would be unnecessary worry. Because I’d be fine.

“Be careful out there — it’s a war zone.”

Stephanie at the Holiday Inn Express looked up and said this to me as I told her I was taking a cab to Ferguson on Tuesday afternoon.

After hours of trying and failing to locate the next pop-up protest in St. Louis proper, I found myself just outside Ferguson, at the Greater St. Mark Family Church.

My phone was telling me an ominous story about what was happening just a few miles away:

But inside the church, away from the tension gathering outside, the tone was upbeat and positive, like a temporary cease-fire. The mood turned somber when Brown’s family arrived, and much of the joy in the room gave way to pain.

Leaders from the community and afar — the church’s pastor, as well as people like Akbar Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and Reverend Al Sharpton — took turns addressing the crowd. The messages vacillated between what the people wanted to hear and what they needed to hear. But one thing was consistent: advising, pleading with, and begging the community not to turn to violence once they left through the church doors. Not to repeat the rioting and looting of Saturday night. One of Michael Brown’s cousins addressed the congregation, and while justice for his family member was at the forefront of his speech, his purpose was also to remind those in attendance that if they needed a reason to remain peaceful, they should do so for Brown’s family.

As I looked through the stained-glass windows while the speeches and sermons continued, day turned to night. This was the time of worry. This was when “peaceful protest” could become a subjective term.

With the service still pushing on, a crowd of more than 100 had trickled out of the church onto its front lawn. The “hands up, don’t shoot” chant — an allusion to what witnesses said were Brown’s last action and words — could be heard, loud and unified. I could feel the shared anger among the congregation’s members, united by the wrongdoings of their police department.

But eventually, different factions with different agendas formed.

“Don’t shoot”

“Shoot back.”

“Black power.”

“Fuck the police.”

“Fuck that, we don’t shoot back. We don’t shoot shit. Don’t y’all listen to that rhetoric.”

“Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”

“Hands up, don’t shoot.”

“We been protesting for 400 years, shoot the fuck back.”

“We don’t need to be fighting each other.”

The history of being black in America is the history of nonviolence versus “fight back.” Of wait versus now. Of a turned cheek versus self-defense. Suddenly, this was becoming the latest chapter in black America’s “what next?” history. And on the steps outside of the church, each group had its Martin and its Malcolm. They all wanted the same thing, but the answers provided in the church weren’t enough for a consensus.

For almost an hour, I watched agreements and disagreements. It was tense but peaceful. There wasn’t a sense that anything terrible was going to happen. But it was clear the breaking point was approaching. And if another day came and went without the police releasing the shooter’s name, that breaking point would arrive.

I left the church, and the crowds, and went back to my hotel.

“I would bet anything that this soul food restaurant would be open on Wednesday, simply because it was open on Tuesday. And I would lose everything.”

Andre, the cab driver dispatched to my Holiday Inn Express, said this as we arrived at Celebrity Soul Food in Ferguson, to find that it was closed on Wednesdays. “Our people, man,” he said. “I love us.”

Since eating yams and greens was no longer in the cards, I asked if he’d take me to the mall. And unlike with other cabdrivers on this trip, Andre and I just bonded. The tragedy was visibly affecting him. He has a son. And he couldn’t help but think about his son whenever he thought about Mike Brown.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Ferguson Police Department released a statement that many in the community hoped would include the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown. But instead of closure, the statement — dripping with insincerity, condescension, and authoritarianism — only made things worse to the aggrieved people of Ferguson.

“The City of Ferguson mourns the loss of Michael Brown’s life that occurred this past Saturday.”

That occurred.

“We ask that any groups wishing to assemble in prayer or in protest do so only during the daylight hours.”

Only during the daylight hours.

“We further ask all those wishing to demonstrate or assemble to disperse well before the evening hours.”

Disperse well before the evening hours.

This felt like an invitation — a dare, even — for the citizens of Ferguson to disobey this thinly veiled curfew masked as a suggestion. From the moment I read it, I knew something bad would happen.

“My youngest nephew, he’s gonna be a big guy, he’s a big kid already. And he’s just — he’s a teddy bear. You know … I’m overwhelmed.”

My cabdriver Lisa said this as she dropped me off at my hotel around 5 p.m. I needed to grab my phone chargers and change clothes, and then I was going to head to Ferguson, with the intention of staying — until. Within minutes of being back in my room, the tweets started filling up my timeline. There was talk of tanks near the QuikTrip, the convenience store near where Brown was killed, which was later burned and looted on Saturday night.

As I considered my next move, I looked down at myself: scuffed-up Jordans, black socks, shorts, tank top, oversize denim button-down, a hat atop my head. And brown skin. I looked like I was from Ferguson.

Once I arrived, I had the cab drop me off away from the major hub of protests, West Florissant Avenue. Because I wanted to walk around and feel out Ferguson during the daytime.

My stroll was cut short, however, when I received a text.

“They got Wesley. They arrested Wesley.”

This appeared to be true, but I still tried to call Wesley Lowery, a reporter for the Washington Post. No response. So I immediately called a cab. No response. I called another cab. No response. I called two more cabs. No response.

Then I called Andre. He picked up, but he wasn’t close enough to get me any time soon.

I was three miles away from the QuikTrip with the tanks on West Florissant and had run out of options. I had no choice but to walk. Because, with darkness rapidly approaching, no cab was coming to my part of Ferguson in the near future.

When you make that long walk down West Florissant, eventually you get to the top of a hill. I don’t know what’s usually on the horizon, but on Wednesday it was the faint glimmer of police lights. Even in the light of day, the sight was ominous. Because there was already a feeling that beyond those lights sat a battlefield.

When I showed up, it was anything but. The police had blocked car traffic, giving pedestrians an “enter at your own risk” look as they moved forward. I expected to walk in and see protesters and police officers inches away from each other’s faces, screaming. Instead I heard gospel music blaring from a flatbed truck. This wasn’t war. This was a post-funeral barbecue … that just happened to have tanks and a small army standing before it.

I’d never had an assault rifle pointed at me before. I’d never locked eyes with a man holding an assault rifle atop a tank. But this was reality in Ferguson — those who’d been protesting for hours in front of these tanks had long passed the point of being scared of these soldiers.

As darkness fell, the crowd was growing, in number and volume. I wasn’t sure which side was going to back down, voluntarily or forcibly. Or when.

At one point, one of the cops appeared to smile. It ignited the crowd, which had made a habit of focusing on specific cops, either in an attempt to rattle them, to draw out any sign of humanity, or simply to shame them.

Then there was the helicopter, circling the crowd with a spotlight shining down. Most of the front line of protesters threw the middle finger whenever the light zeroed in on them.

And then there was the first request, which felt more like a demand.


Begrudgingly, we moved back, but it only made us louder. And angrier. And again, as we got louder and angrier, the sky grew darker.

And then, a second time:


And we got even louder. And angrier. But again, we moved back.

Text after text was coming in from friends, telling me to be safe. I internalized it, without quite knowing what that meant in the moment. At this point, the only way to truly be safe was to leave Ferguson. And I couldn’t leave yet. Not when mothers had their babies out here, screaming, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Not yet.

At that moment, I gave up on trying to be safe. All I could be was smart.

Walking back to the front lines, I overheard an argument between two women, not about the army in front of us but about Al Sharpton. One woman claimed he was a punk for not being here fighting, and the other said he was doing things behind the scenes so that we could get justice.

And then a third party chimed in: “Everybody entitled to their own opinion, this for Mike Brown right now.” It calmed the situation down briefly, and everyone turned their attention back to “hands up, don’t shoot.”

The chant went strong for 30 seconds, until protesters grew weary of saying the same thing over and over again. And then, moments after the chant had died down, I heard glass break and the sound of a loosed gas canister.


A man sitting near me was the first person I saw start to run. Then, suddenly, we were all running. I remember looking over my shoulder as my legs churned beneath me. The police were shooting flares and I didn’t want to get hit in the back. But I didn’t stop running, because I didn’t want the smoke to catch up. There was also the sound of weapons firing. And this siren. This terrible, terrible siren.

At some point, I fell. And, for a moment, I could feel the smoke in my lungs. The mix of the weapons firing and the smoke and the sirens froze me for a second, and then I got up to hide behind a tree. There were screams — “LET’S GO!” Some yelled at the cops: “Come lock me the fuck up!” “On the side of y’all car it says ‘to protect and serve’ and y’all ain’t protecting shit!” “There’s fucking kids out here and you throwing smoke bombs!”

Eventually, they’d pushed the majority of the crowd back to the nearest intersection. But most people weren’t leaving. And then the voice from the tank spoke again:


The more that voice from the tank spoke, the more agitated those that hung around became. And the less interested many were in following its orders.

“Y’all made this unpeaceful. That’s your fault. We was peaceful until y’all did that shit. Smoke bombs and people got their kids out here? Really?”

Reaching into my pocket for my phone, I realized that when I fell, I’d landed on it. It was done.

I wanted to leave, but I needed to send some type of message indicating that I was OK. I was at least an hour away from being anyplace where I could text or tweet.

As I searched for someone with a phone, everyone around me was ready to fight.

“Oh, y’all want us to shoot back. We’ll shoot back, just wait.”

“Tonight’s the last peaceful night. Know that.”

Shit, I immediately thought. Someone is going to die tonight.

Eventually, I met Michael Calhoun. He works at KMOX, the CBS radio affiliate out of St. Louis. He still had some juice in his phone and let me send a few tweets. Then we returned to the main street to see what was up. It seemed calmer than when we’d headed to the car. Smoke was in the air, but it wasn’t new smoke.

And then what felt like a bomb went off.

I don’t know what it was, but it sounded like a bomb. I don’t know what I was talking about when the explosion happened, but I ran. I caught Michael’s eye as he ran back to his car, letting him know he didn’t have to wait up.

I kept running. I didn’t know where I was running, but I was running. Now there were explosions and sirens and smoke and gunshots and a helicopter shining its light through the neighborhood. We scattered like roaches, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the cops thought of us that way.

And I kept running.

I can’t believe I didn’t call my mom.

After weaving through the streets, realizing that I’d gone in some sort of circle, I ran into a camera crew. One of the men let me attempt to charge my phone in his car. I laid down on the grass briefly, but then propped myself up because I couldn’t get the smoke out of my throat. A man walking down the street stopped and we stood there, coughing and spitting for 10 seconds.

And then what sounded like another bomb went off.

As we ran across the street, away from the sound of the explosion, a helicopter shone its light on us. We instinctively ducked, as if a prison watch guard had caught us trying to break out. And I grabbed my stuff. We told each other to be safe, and I started running toward the main street. I figured if I could just get up this one block, I’d find my way to the car blockade, and then I’d be safe.

Then I froze. I could see the soldiers marching up West Florissant. They looked like monsters.

At that moment, I didn’t feel like a journalist. There was nothing about this event that I felt the need to chronicle. There was no time to find out what the bombs actually were and what was actually coming out of the guns and what type of gas was coming out of the canisters. In this moment, there was nothing I felt the need to broadcast to the world. I didn’t even have the desire to communicate my safety or lack thereof.

I was just a black man in Ferguson.

So I ran into the darkness. Every 10 to 15 seconds, I’d hear a shot. Or another bomb. Or I’d duck into someone’s yard as the light from the helicopter found me. When it disappeared, I’d run again.

As I took my first turn right — knowing that, eventually, there had to be a major road to the right — I ran past three kids no more than 16 years old. They had bandannas around their mouths and were running back into the melee. “You running the wrong way,” one of them said to me, without breaking his stride. And then they disappeared into a different darkness.

Shit. Someone is going to die tonight.

I stopped for a moment, and then a few more shots went off and I kept running, eyes full of tears.

I knew I was far away enough from it all that I’d probably be fine. But those kids, I didn’t know. Those were the same kind of black boys I worry about daily, who brought me to Ferguson in the first place. It was seeing those kids running toward the monsters that ultimately made me break down.

But I kept running. And even though I got farther and farther away, each sound reminded me of what had just happened, and what was still happening. I don’t know how long I ran. Eventually, I saw a car with red lights. It was the road. Chambers Road.

I felt like I’d entered a different universe. Like I was the character in the movie who didn’t know what year it was. And like no one had any idea what was happening only blocks away. Why I was so sweaty. Why I was breathing so heavily. Why my voice was rattling. Why I was so terrified.

I didn’t know what to do. And my phone was dead. So I walked up the street to London’s Wing House and told them I’d order a three-piece if they let me make one call. They obliged.

I called Andre because his card was sitting in my wallet, and it was the only number I had.

When he answered, he immediately asked, “You good?” He suspected I’d been down there and said he’d be to me in 10 minutes.

For a while, I sat outside the Wing House, stunned. Then it began to sink in. I needed to get out of here. I wished every single car that drove by was Andre’s black car. They all looked black until they got close. And it was never Andre behind the wheel. As I waited for that black car to pull up, a yellow cab pulled alongside me and the driver looked at me. It was Andre. Why did I think his car was black? Where did that thought even come from?

He got out of the car and we shook hands. He asked if I was OK. I told him not really, but that I was here and that I appreciated him coming. And then I gave him the address of where he was taking me, the Holiday Inn Express. 10000 Natural Bridge Road.

“Rem, I picked you up from there. Remember?”

“Oh yeah.”

I was rattled. And he knew it. And he let me explain everything that happened. As badly as I wanted out of this area, I couldn’t stop talking to him. We stood outside his taxi for 10 minutes before we even entertained leaving. Once I was done detailing what I’d seen, Andre told me he’d been watching the news with his mother when I called.

“I thought this was over,” Andre’s mom had said, referring to the days of the dogs and the hoses and the bombs and all the other forms of police brutality and intimidation that marked her life.

He said he didn’t have an answer for her. And I shook my head, because I didn’t have an answer for him. So we just got into the car and drove away.

Link: In Defense of the Ferguson Riots

The protesters in Ferguson aren’t irrational or apolitical. They are calling attention to their basic, unmet needs.

Over the weekend, police in Ferguson, Missouri murdered Michael Brown, a black teenager. While details are still trickling in, it’s clear that during a confrontation with a squad car a block away from his grandmother’s house, an officer shot and killed the unarmed teen in the middle of the street. Witnesses say Brown was running away from the policeman and had his hands in the air just before the officer shot him.

Ferguson is a city with a large concentration of poor blacks under the control of overwhelmingly white institutions. The killing immediately struck a nerve. Rallies and protests erupted as people took to the streets — eventually culminating in a riot. Crowds went from holding candle light vigils at the site of Brown’s death to burning down a number of businesses and lighting molotov cocktails during confrontations with police. How did we get here?

Far from a mindless, violent mob, the people of Ferguson were engaged in concerted political consciousness-raising leading up to the insurrection. A video taken at the scene shows a number of political
agitators talking with the crowd, converting momentary outrage into political unity. One speaker in particular, a young black male, offers a cogent political analysis that frames the injustice of police brutality as a byproduct of the community’s economic dislocation.

We keep giving these crackers our money, staying in they complexes, and we can’t get no justice. No respect. They ready to put you out [if you] miss a bill … You got to be fed up.

Riots, like other forms of political action, can build solidarity. They can create strong feelings of common identity. The outrage in Ferguson quickly attracted marginalized people throughout the region. Rather than evidence of illegitimacy, the presence of these “outsiders” reflected the magnetic power of the political moment.

From the outset, the anti-police police rallies that preceded the riots had a clear “us versus them” dynamic. At one point during the rally, the woman holding the camera says, “Where the thugs at? Where the street tribes when we need y’all?” and the crowd then begins to call on various street gangs to abandon “black-on-black” violence and unite in struggle against oppression. The community was unified and ready to take action. The police were the problem, and they had to be stopped.

The crowd was not irrational and apolitical. They were attempting to use this opportunity to address their broader political needs. They knew that intraracial violence within the community was also an issue, and that in most cases the perpetrators of violence are the communities’ own children, cousins, friends, and neighbors. Though many claim that black people don’t care about violence within our communities, the crowd’s calls for gang unity demonstrate that anti-police uprisings provide unique opportunities to unite people in ways that seek to resolve long-term issues like gang violence.

Following the insurrection, participants continued to discuss the uprising in political terms. DeAndre Smith, who was present at the burned down QuikTrip, told the local news, “I believe that they’re too much worried about what’s going on to their stores and their commerce and everything. They’re not worried about the murder.” A second man added, “I just think what happened was necessary, to show the police that they don’t run everything.” Smith then concludes, “I don’t think they did enough.”

In a second interview, this time with Kim Bell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Smith expanded on his belief in the riot as a viable political strategy.

This is exactly what’s supposed to happen when an injustice is happening in your community … I was out here with the community, that’s all I can say … I don’t think it’s over, honestly. I think they just got a case of what fighting back means, in St. Louis, the last state to abolish slavery. Do they think they still have power over certain things? I believe so.

This is how they receive money: businesses and taxes, police stopping people and giving them tickets, taking them to court, locking them up — this is how they make money in St. Louis. Everything is all about money in St. Louis. So when you stop their flow of income they have things organized in a certain way … ‘we’re gonna eat, you’re gonna starve,’ gentrification — put you in a certain neighborhood by yourself and see if you can starve … It’s not going to happen, not in St. Louis.

Smith identifies what so many self-styled anti-racists and leftists fail to understand — that racism is not an issue of moral character. He recognizes that the broader economic order facilitates and benefits from racial subjugation, and so he’s looking for ways to intervene and disrupt that process. Not only is this a more substantive analysis than what is often offered on the Left, but acting on this analysis is the only way to eradicate entrenched racial hierarchy.

Typically, when events like the Ferguson rebellion occur, well-meaning people rush to condemn the participants. At a minimum, they dismiss rioting as unproductive and opportunistic — a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. This is precisely the attitude that Deandre Smith was criticizing in his first interview. Most detractors, some of whom are black themselves, seek to police these communities with “respectability politics” — a call for subjugated people to present themselves in ways that are acceptable to the dominant class in an effort to make political gains.

As the political scientist Frederick Harris wrote in an article this year:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to ‘uplift the race’ by correcting the ‘bad’ traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity.

But the politics of respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of the black poor and working class.

Whereas riots are often galvanizing community events with the potential to unleash concerted political energy in dynamic and unpredictable directions, the stale politics of respectability only leads to further marginalization and dislocation. Now, it’s possible to disagree with the utility of insurrection. But these communities’ responses to subjugation must be discussed in political terms and not simply dismissed out of hand.

We live in a context of white supremacy and neoliberal capitalism, where race-neutral policies are being used to maintain class exploitation and racial hierarchy, and any overt attempts to address racism are being dismantled or disregarded. These policies only intensify the economic dislocation and poverty experienced by those at the margins.

What both the local news interviewees and the crowd at the scene of Brown’s death seemed to understand was that they needed to disrupt the interplay between racial subjugation and capitalism. They felt that a march or some other acceptable form of benign indignation would not address their political needs — and they weren’t wrong.

Many of us rush to condemn these types of disruptions because we’re actually content with neoliberalism’s post-racial illusion. At the burned down QuikTrip, someone left a sign addressed to their “corporate neighbor,” in the hopes that the business would return: “Dear Corporate Neighbor, I am sorry this act of robbery & violence has happened. Please return soon. I stop in 2-3 time[s] per week.”

On the surface, addressing the effects of rioting is an important political issue. By framing themselves as a customer in need of their “corporate neighbor,” it’s possible that this person is acting not out of concern for the working people that lost their jobs — their actual neighbors — but from the fear that their shopping routine will be disturbed. Like Deandre Smith observed, we identify more strongly with broken windows than broken people.

From the Boston Tea Party to Shays’ Rebellion, riots made America, for better or worse. In the past, white rioters have had access to institutional power, which allowed some of their grievances to be legitimized and politically resolved, at least to extent possible in a capitalist society. The key for the Ferguson uprising, as with any unsustainable political moment, is to transition outrage and disruption into constructive political organization. Easier said than done — but it’s a better reaction than dismissing the riots and only making it more difficult for the people to accomplish this herculean task.

Malcolm X reminds us that media is a key instrument of subjugation because it determines which acts are respectable and which are extreme and thus illegitimate. Instead of following that familiar script, let’s push back against narratives about rioters being devoid of politics. Let’s find ways to honestly observe and discuss their political needs, rather than simply criticizing the nature of their response to social violence.

Link: Adam Curtis / Now Then: The Hidden Systems That Have Frozen Time And Stop Us Changing The World

If you are an American politician today, as well as an entourage you also have a new, modern addition. You have what’s called a “digital tracker”. They follow you everywhere with a high-definition video camera, and they are employed by the people who want to destroy your political career.

It’s called “opposition research” and the aim is to constantly record everything you say and do. The files are sent back every night to large anonymous offices in Washington where dozens of researchers systematically compare everything you said today with what you said in the past.

They are looking for contradictions. And if they find one - they feed it, and the video evidence, to the media.

On one hand it’s old politics - digging up the dirt on your opponent. But it is also part of something new - and much bigger than just politics. Throughout the western world new systems have risen up whose job is to constantly record and monitor the present - and then compare that to the recorded past. The aim is to discover patterns, coincidences and correlations, and from that find ways of stopping change. Keeping things the same.

We can’t properly see what is happening because these systems are operating in very different areas - from consumerism, to the management of your own body, to predicting future crimes, and even trying to stabilise the global financial system - as well as in politics.

But taken together the cumulative effect is that of a giant refrigerator that freezes us, and those who govern us, into a state of immobility, perpetually repeating the past and terrified of change and the future.

To bring this system into focus I want to tell the history of its rise, and its strange roots - the bastard love-child of snooping and high-level mathematical theory.

It begins with the grubby figure of the early 1960s in Britain - the Private Detective. Up till then private detectives mostly did divorce work. They would burst into hotel rooms to find a married person engaged in adulterous activity. Often these were prearranged situations, set up to supply the necessary evidence to get round Britain’s tough divorce laws.

Then two things happened. The divorce laws were reformed - which meant the bottom fell out of the market. But at the same time home movie cameras became cheap and available. Private detectives began to spend their time hiding round corners and behind bushes - recording what their suspects got up to.

Here are two clips I’ve put together. The first is one of the old-school private detectives going to a hotel room in Brighton to “surprise” the occupants. Followed by a wonderful item from 1973 where one of the new breed shows how he can film people without them noticing. Or so he says. From the evidence you’d doubt it.

He mostly works for the insurance companies - following people and filming them to see if they are faking an injury they are claiming for. I love the 8mm cameras he uses.

The item also includes an interview with a man who is opposed to this snooping. The interviewer says surely they are just trying to find the truth - that a film can’t lie. The man’s response is great:

A film can lie very easily - the insurance company or the investigator can edit the film. Supposing someone has a bad limp that only occurs on wet days, or it’s a nervous spasm that comes on some days rather than others. The film is shown in court - and shows only the good days when there’s no limp

It’s wonderfully silly - but he has a point. Bit like documentary films.

Then - in the early 1970s - the private detectives found they could buy another kind of technology really cheaply.

Bugging equipment.

A new business grew up - often based in tiny rooms above electronic hardware shops in central London. An odd collection of electrical engineers and refugees from the music industry spent their days soldering together miniature transmitters and microphones - and selling them to the private investigators.

Here’s a really good film made about this new world in 1973. It not only reports on what is happening - but also catches the essence of what was coming. Most of the film is just set in one room where there are three hidden bugs as well as the normal camera and microphone recording the presenter who is called Linda Blandford. But she doesn’t know where they are.

The film evokes the strange repetitive nature of an enclosed world where everything is recorded and played back. Way ahead of its time. It’s a smart bit of reporting.

But then - at the end of the 1970s - people began to get worried. It began with revelations that the security agencies were eavesdropping not just on enemy spies but on their own people. Trades unions, radical journalists, politicians had all had their phones bugged.

It quickly spread to a wider concern about all the snooping and bugging that was going on, not just by the state but by private investigators, and by journalists. It was the start of the concern that Britain was becoming a “surveillance society”.

Here is a bit report from that time about the growing fears. By now the private detective had become a man in a phone box blowing a harmonic whistle into the mouthpiece.

Journalists also started to get keen on all this new technology. It allowed them to snoop and listen to people in new ways. Here is great section from a fly-on-the wall documentary made about the News of the World in 1981.

There’s a wonderful assistant editor who is convinced that Special Branch is bugging his phone. While reporter David Potts is testing his bugging equipment that’s going to be used by Tina the junior reporter to expose a child sex ring in North London.

What then happens to Mr Potts’ scoop is very funny. And it shows how difficult it was back then to bug someone. It’s obvious that what they needed to find was an easier way of snooping on peoples’ lives.

In 1987 the growing paranoia finally burst out. The trigger was a BBC television series called The Secret Society made by an investigative journalist called Duncan Campbell.

In 6 half-hour films Campbell pulled what had been happening all together - and drew a frightening picture that still haunts the imagination of the liberal left.

Not only were the security services and the police secretly watching and listening to you - but dark elements of the “security state” had a corrupt relationship with the private security world. The films showed how investigators could easily buy confidential information on anyone.

And at the same time other secret bureaucracies were building giant listening networks - and keeping them hidden from politicians. One of the episodes was about the plans to launch a spy satellite called Zircon. Campbell revealed that the project had been kept hidden from the very politicians who were supposed to oversee it.

The government and the head of GCHQ panicked and put enormous pressure on the BBC, who caved in and said they wouldn’t transmit the episode. It was an enormous scandal - and it seemed to prove dramatically everything that Campbell was saying about the secret state who watched you - but didn’t want you to know things.

Here are some extracts from the series. In one bit Campbell reveals how, as well as the state, the private sector have developed huge computer databases full of information about millions of ordinary people. In a great sequence he goes to a market in Knaresborough in Yorkshire and asks people if they’d like to see what these databases know about them.

Their reactions of horror to what they are shown are so innocent. It’s like a lost world.

I’ve also included a brief bit from the Zircon film - so you can see what all the fuss was about. It didn’t remain banned for long - and has been shown since.

Looking back you can see how programmes like the Secret Society were part of the growing distrust of those who governed us. They seemed to prove that there were hidden, unaccountable and corrupt forces at the heart of the British state.

And the paranoia about surveillance carried on growing.

But at the very time as this happened - a new system of watching and monitoring people rose up. It would do pretty much what the spies and the private detectives had been trying to do - but much much more. It would record not just all our actions - but also be able to understand what was going on inside our heads - our wishes, our desires and our dislikes.

It was called the internet.

The problem was that the only way for the systems on the internet to work would be with our willing collusion. But rather than reject it - we all embraced it. And it flourished.

The key to why this happened lies in an odd experiment carried out in a computer laboratory in California in 1966.

A computer scientist called Joseph Weizenbaum was researching Artificial Intelligence. The idea was that computers could be taught to think - and become like human beings. Here is a picture of Mr Weizenbaum.

There were lots of enthusiasts in the Artificial Intelligence world at that time. They dreamt about creating a new kind of techno-human hybrid world - where computers could interact with human beings and respond to their needs and desires.

Weizenbaum though was sceptical about this. And in 1966 he built an intelligent computer system that he called ELIZA. It was, he said, a computer psychotherapist who could listen to your feelings and respond - just as a therapist did.

But what he did was model ELIZA on a real psychotherapist called Carl Rogers who was famous for simply repeating back the the patient what they had just said. And that is what ELIZA did. You sat in front of a screen and typed in what you were feeling or thinking - and the programme simply repeated what you had written back to you - often in the form of a question.

Weizenbaum’s aim was to parody the whole idea of AI - by showing the simplification of interaction that was necessary for a machine to “think”. But when he started to let people use ELIZA he discovered something very strange that he had not predicted at all.

Here is a bit from a documentary where Weizenbaum describes what happened.

Weizenbaum found his secretary was not unusual. He was stunned - he wrote - to discover that his students and others all became completely engrossed in the programme. They knew exactly how it worked - that really they were just talking to themselves. But they would sit there for hours telling the machine all about their lives and their inner feelings - sometimes revealing incredibly personal details.

His response was to get very gloomy about the whole idea of machines and people. Weizenbaum wrote a book in the 1970s that said that the only way you were going to get a world of thinking machines was not by making computers become like humans. Instead you would have to do the opposite - somehow persuade humans to simplify themselves, and become more like machines.

But others argued that, in the age of the self, what Weizenbaum had invented was a new kind of mirror for people to explore their inner world. A space where individuals could liberate themselves and explore their feelings without the patronising elitism and fallibility of traditional authority figures.

When a journalist asked a computer engineer what he thought about having therapy from a machine. He said in a way it was better because -

after all, the computer doesn’t burn out, look down on you, or try to have sex with you

ELIZA became very popular and lots of researchers at MIT had it on their computers. One night a lecturer called Mr Bobrow left ELIZA running. The next morning the vice president of a sales firm who was working with MIT sat down at the computer. He thought he could use it to contact the lecturer at home - and he started to type into it.

In reality he was talking to Eliza - but he didn’t realise it.

This is the conversation that followed.

But, of course, ELIZA didn’t ring him. The Vice President sat there fuming - and then decided to ring the lecturer himself. And this is the response he got:

Vice President - “Why are you being so snotty to me?”

Mr Bobrow - “What do you mean I am being snotty to you?”

Out of ELIZA and lots of other programmes like it came an idea. That computers could monitor what human beings did and said - and then analyse that data intelligently. If they did this they could respond by predicting what that human being should then do, or what they might want.

They key to making it work was a system called Boolean Logic.

It had been invented back in 1847 by a mathematician called George Boole. One day he’d been walking across a field near Doncaster when he had what he described as a “mystical experience”. Boole said that he felt he had been “called on to express the workings of the human mind in symbolic or mathematical form”.

Boole’s idea was that everything that went on in the human mind could be reduced to a series of yes or no decisions that could be written out on paper using symbols.

His idea was pretty much ignored for over a hundred years - except by Lewis Carroll who as well as writing Alice in Wonderland, wrote a book called Symbolic Logic - that laid out and developed Boole’s ideas.

But when computers were invented people immediately realised that Boole’s idea could be used to allow the computers to “think” in a reasoned way. Computers were digital - they were either 0 or 1 - and that was the same as “yes” and “no”. So Boolean Logic became central to the way computers work today. They are full of endless decision trees saying “if this happened then this, and not this”.

Here is a picture of George Boole taken in 1864. It was just before he died and it is one of the earliest portrait photos - he’d stopped off at the new London School of Photography at 174 Regent Street.

In the early 1990s researchers became convinced they could get computers to predict what people might want.

It started in 1992 with a small unit set up in the University of Minnesota. They called themselves GroupLens. Their idea was that if you could collect information on what people liked and then compare the data, you would find patterns - and from that you could make predictions.

They called it “Collaborative Filtering” - and the logic was beautifully Boolean. As one researcher put it -

If Jack loves A and B and Jill loves A, B, and C then Jack is more likely to love C.

They began by comparing the news articles that people recommended in online newsgroups-

GroupLens monitored user ratings of news articles. After a user had rated several items GroupLens was able to make recommendations about other articles the user might like. The results were astounding. Users read articles that we recommended highly three to four times as often as those we didn’t

Then, in 1994, a young professor at MIT did the same with music. She was called Pattie Maes - and she designed a system called RINGO. She set up a website where people listed songs and bands they liked. One user described how it worked

What Ringo did was give you 20 or so music titles by name, then asked one by one whether you liked it, didn’t like it, or knew it at all. That initialized the system with a small DNA of your likes and dislikes. Thereafter, when you asked for a recommendation, the program matched your DNA with that of all the others in the system. If some of the matches were not successful - saying so would perfect your string of bits. Next time would be even better

Again it worked amazingly well. And Maes started to do the same with movies. Then the University of Minnesota group had a brainwave. If these systems could tell you what articles and songs you would like - why couldn’t they tell you what products you would like as well?

So in 1997 they set up a company called Net Perceptions. And one of their first clients was Amazon.

But one of Amazon’s young software engineers called Greg Linden soon realised that there was a problem with these systems. You had to spend all your time finding out what people said they liked. And as the systems became bigger and bigger - this was proving incredibly cumbersome.

Plus - people were fickle and they changed their mind a lot. Or - in computer engineer speak - they were “dynamic”.

Linden saw what the solution was. You give up finding out what people said they liked and instead you just look at what they’ve done in the past. You assembled all the data from people’s history - all the stuff they’ve looked at and bought in the past - and then compared that with other peoples’ past.

Out of that came patterns and correlations that the human brain could not possibly see - but from those correlations you could tell what individuals would want in the future.

Linden was part of what was called The Personalization Group in Amazon. He said:

the joke in the group was that if the system were working perfectly, Amazon should just show you one book - which is the next book you are going to buy.

And it worked - sales soared, and Jeff Bezos who runs Amazon allegedly crawled up to Linden on his hands and knees saying “I am not worthy”.

What Amazon and many other companies began to do in the late 1990s was build up a giant world of the past on their computer servers. A historical universe that is constantly mined to find new ways of giving back to you today what you liked yesterday - with variations.

Interestingly, one of the first people to criticise these kind of “recommender systems” for their unintended effect on society was Patti Maes who had invented RINGO. She said that the inevitable effect is to narrow and simplify your experience - leading people to get stuck in a static, ever-narrowing version of themselves.

Stuck in the endless you-loop. Just like with ELIZA

But like so much of the modern digital world - these new systems are very abstract. And there is little to see that happens apart from endless fingers on keyboards. So it’s difficult to bring these effects into any kind of real focus.

Last year - in a live show I did with Massive Attack - we tried to evoke this new world. We used a song from the 1980s called “Bela Lugosi’s dead” - which I love because it has a very powerful feel of repetition. The audience were surrounded by 11 twenty-five foot high screens.

I’m not sure how successfully we did it - but what I was trying to show is how your past is continually being replayed back to you - like a modern ghost. And it means we stand still unable to move forwards. Like a story that’s got stuck.

I’ve put a short bit of it together from some camera-phone videos shot by the audience in New York. It’s a bit rough - as is the sound - but you’ll get a sense of it.

For all the online companies that use these systems, the fact that they tend to inhibit change is an unintended consequence.

But there are other - more powerful systems that grew up in the 1990s whose explicit aim is exactly that. To prevent the world from changing, and hold it stable.

And they operate in exactly the same way - by constantly monitoring the world and then searching their vast databases for patterns and correlations.

ALADDIN is the name of an incredibly powerful computer network that is based in a tiny town called East Wenatchee - it’s in the middle of nowhere in Washington State in North America.

Aladdin guides the investment of over $11 trillion of assets around the world.

This makes it incredibly powerful. Aladdin is owned by a company called Blackrock that is the biggest investor in the world. It manages as much money as all the hedge-funds and the private equity firms in the world put together. And its computer watches over 7% of all the investments in the world.

This is unprecedented - it’s a kind of power never seen before. But Blackrock is not run by a greedy, rapacious financier - the traditional figure of recent journalism. Blackrock is run by the very opposite - a very cautious man called Mr Fink

Here he is. He’s called Larry Fink

Back in 1986 Mr Fink was working his way up the First National Bank of Boston when an unpredicted fall in interest rates caused a disaster for the bank. He swore that it would never happen again - and for 20 years he built Aladdin.

It has within its memory a vast history of the past 50 years - not just financial - but all kinds of events. What it does is constantly take things that happen in the present day and compares them to events in the past. Out of the millions and millions of correlations - Aladdin then spots possible disasters - possible futures - and moves the investments to avoid that future happening.

I can’t over-emphasise how powerful Blackrock’s system is in shaping the world - it’s more powerful in some respects than traditional politics.

And it raises really important questions. Because its aim is to not change the world - but to keep it stable. Preventing any development thats too risky. And when you are moving $11 trillion around to do that -it is a really important new force.

But it’s boring. And there is no story. Just patterns.

Here is some video of Aladdin. A few weeks ago I was filming in Idaho - and decided to go and have a look at the buildings that house Aladdin. I had asked Blackrock if I could have a look inside. Surprisingly the guy in charge of their PR said yes. But a little while later he left the company in what seemed to be a reorganisation.

But it didn’t really matter - because you know what it will look like. Row upon row of servers roaring away, and surrounded by giant batteries that will rescue the system if the power supply goes.

Here’s the shot from the car driving past the computer sheds that house Aladdin. A 37 seconds tracking shot, and you can see how dull it is.

It is the modern world of power - and it’s incredibly boring. Nothing to film, run by a cautious man who is in no way a wolf of Wall Street. It’s how power works today. It hides in plain sight - through sheer boringness and dullness.

No wonder we find it difficult to tell stories about it.

There are also a growing number of systems that use data from the past to predict whether individuals are going to commit crimes in the future.

On the surface it’s laudable. But it’s also rather weird - and in some cases can be false and dangerous.

In every case the systems monitor individuals’ behaviour and then sees if that shares similar characteristics with groups of other people stored on the databases who have behaved dangerously in the past.

There is software being used by the Department of Work and Pensions that detects fraudsters by analysing the voices of people who ring its call centres. If you ask the wrong kind of questions - or even ask the right kind of questions in the wrong way - it puts you in the dangerous group.

The government also has what they call a Social Exclusion unit which has an Action Plan. It’s aim is to use data to predict when things might go wrong in poor families - even before birth. In one scheme the unborn child of a pregnant mother might be categorised as potentially being a future criminal.

This is based on things like the mother’s age, her poor educational achievements, her drug use and her own family history. If the system decides that the unborn child is a potentially dangerous criminal the response is not exactly Philip K Dick - a nurse is sent round to give advice on parenting.

But the oddest is STATIC-99. It’s a way of predicting whether sex offenders are likely to commit crimes again after they have been released. In America this is being used to decide whether to keep them in jail even after they have served their full sentence.

STATIC-99 works by scoring individuals on criteria such as age, number of sex-crimes and sex of the victim. These are then fed into a database that shows recidivism rates of groups of sex-offenders in the past with similar characteristics. The judge is then told how likely it is - in percentage terms - that the offender will do it again.

The problem is that it is not true. What the judge is really being told is the likely percentage of people in the group who will re-offend. There is no way the system can predict what an individual will do. A recent very critical report of such systems said that the margin of error for individuals could be as great as between 5% and 95%

In other words completely useless. Yet people are being kept in prison on the basis that such a system predicts they might do something bad in the future.

Opposition Research - the constant recording of everything a politician says and does fits into the same pattern.

But it’s a system of wonk-driven surveillance that goes even further - because it has the unforeseen consequence of forcing politicians to behave like machines. It leads them to constantly repeat what they said yesterday, and unable to make imaginative or creative leaps

Every night the digital tracker sends back what that politician said or did today. The first aim is to find something outrageous in that day’s video that can be given to the media.

Here is one classic example. It is Jon Bruning who compared welfare recipients to racoons. His speech up to that point is actually quite a funny right-wing attack on what he sees as the absurdity of environmental protection. But then he went too far.

And he was shamed. And he lost the election.

But the other - bigger - task of the opposition researchers is to spend hours comparing what the politician said today with their recorded past that is stored in the computers. They look for contradictions and if they find one they release the videos to the media and again the politician is shamed.

So the politicians become frozen and immobile - because they have to have a blameless history. Which again seems laudable. But it means they can’t change their mind. They can’t adapt to the world as it changes.

Although if ALADDIN has its way that won’t matter

George Boole - who helped start all this with his Boolean Logic had an extraordinary family.

One of them, his son-in-law was called Charles Howard Hinton. He too was a mathematician and he became famous at the end of the nineteenth century when he wrote a book called The Fourth Dimension.

It said that time was an illusion. That everything that has happened and that will happen already exists in a four-dimensional space. Human beings, Hinton said, don’t realise this because they don’t have the ability to see this four-dimensional world.

Our idea of time - Hinton said - is just a line that goes across this four-dimensional space like a cross section. But we can’t see it.

The cumulative effect of all today’s systems that store up data from the past is to create something rather like Hinton’s world. Everything that has already happened is increasingly stored on the giant servers in places like East Wenatchee.

It never goes away. And this past bears down on the present - continually being replayed to try and avoid anything that is dangerous and unpredictable.

What is missing is the other half of Hinton’s world. The future - with all its dangers, but also all it’s possibilities.

But George Boole had another daughter called Ethel. She had an amazing life - which showed that there is another way. Because Ethel believed in the future.

Here she is in a Boole family photo - taken after her father died. Ethel is to her mother’s right. (Incidentally the rest of the Boole family that you see in this photo also had amazing lives - but that’s another story)

When Ethel was 15 she read a book about the Italian revolutionary Mazzini. It inspired her - and she wore clothes like him, dressing in black in mourning for the state of the world.

In 1889 she met a Polish revolutionary called Wilfred Michail Voynich. He had escaped from Siberia and had arrived penniless in London. They fell in love and married, and Ethel went off to Russia to smuggle in illegal revolutionary publications.

Then she met the master-spy Sydney Reilly. He is one of the most extraordinary figures in the odd world of espionage. He’d been born in the Ukraine, but turned against his family and faked his own suicide to escape.

After all kinds of adventures, including rescuing three British intelligence agents from the swamps of the Amazon jungles, Reilly went to London where he spent his time gambling - and he and Ethel began a passionate affair. They eloped to Italy where Reilly bared his soul to Ethel - telling her the extraordinary story of his life.

Then Reilly deserted her - and went off to Russia where he worked as a secret agent for the British. Ian Fleming is said to have used Reilly as the model for James Bond.

Ethel was heartbroken - and she wrote a novel called The Gadfly which, although she never admitted it, her biographer says is obviously based on the early adventures of Sydney Reilly.

It’s the most amazing book. It’s an over the top melodrama set in Italy about the hero, Arthur’s battle against the church and the corrupt state - and his treacherous family. At the same time it is about his passionate love for an english girl - Gemma. It ends with Arthur being slowly tortured and then condemned to be shot.

Its message though is a revolutionary one. Arthur is sacrificed so that humankind can be redeemed and open the way to a realisation of the future possibilities for the world - once the old oppressive forces have been overthrown.

Here is Ethel with a wonderful revolutionary look in her eyes

The Gadfly was published in 1897 in New York - under Ethel’s married name, E.L. Voynich. No British publisher would touch it because of its “outrageous and horrible character”. But then it was published in Russia and became an astonishing success. One writer describes how all the young Bolsheviks read it and “it virtually became the bible of the revolution”.

By the 1960s it was estimated that 250 million Russian teenagers had read the Gadfly in translation. And polls showed that Arthur was consistently the favourite hero of Soviet youth. And in 1955 a film version was made - with a soundtrack by Shostakovich - which won an award at the Cannes film festival.

In 1920 Ethel went back to her husband Wilfred Voynich. He had moved to New York and had become one of the world’s greatest expert and dealers in rare books.

His most famous purchase was a mysterious manuscript written in code that has come to be known as The Voynich Manuscript. No one has ever been able to break the code - it seems to have many scientific references, and herbal and astronomical illustrations.

Voynich believed that it was written by the philosopher Roger Bacon - and then came into the possession of the legendary John Dee who was a mathematician at the court of Queen Elizabeth.

After Voynich died, Ethel kept the manuscript in a safe deposit box in New York for thirty years - and then sold it in 1960. And it ended up in Yale University. One of the great experts in cryptography wrote:

The Voynich manuscript lies quietly inside its slipcase in the blackness of Yale’s vaults, possibly a time-bomb in the history of science, awaiting the man who can interpret what is still the most mysterious manuscript in the world.

Ethel Boole died in 1960 at the age of 96. Still believing in the power of revolution to change the world. Here is one of the most beautiful sections of Shostakovich’s music for the Gadfly - cut to images of the strange Boolean world that we live in today.

Link: Portable Hell

The world is going to hell in a hurry. At my age, I ought to be used to it, but I’m not.

Perhaps ignorance is bliss, I say to myself, and think of people I know who care little about what goes on in the world. I have sympathy for them. It’s no fun starting one’s day or retiring at night with images of dead children.

When he was old, my father said that he could think of two ways to break his addiction to newspapers: enter a monastery or a lunatic asylum.

Today’s news is always old news. The innocent get slaughtered and someone makes up excuses.

The same type of lunatics who made the world what it was when I was a child are still around. Their names have changed, their nationalities and causes, too, but they are as demented and as bloodthirsty as they ever were.

To hear our conservatives talk, our problems are only moral ones: the laziness of our poor and the insatiable sexual appetite of our women being on the top of the list. Yes, of course, but it’s more than that. They just can’t close their legs.

We should demand that the servants of the rich and powerful in every walk of life wear livery appropriate to their rank, as they did in the past centuries.

I caught myself scratching my head with a match as if trying to set it on fire.

They got up and applauded the rich guy for bankrupting companies and laying off employees and crowded afterward to get his autograph.

Eighty thousand people held in solitary in our prisons. Think about that as you plump your pillow and make yourself comfy in your bed some night.

Has any country ever admitted killing civilians out of a desire for revenge? Like everyone else in occupied Europe, I hated Germans and wished them all dead. However, later on, when I saw the extent of destruction the Allied bombing had done to their cities, I was horrified by what was obviously pure malice.

Collective punishment, in which the entire population of the enemy country is targeted, so that an old man in a wheelchair and a kid reading a book in bed are in as much danger as a tank, is a vile impulse, and though it is now regarded as a violation of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions, it has continued to be practiced long after Dresden and Hiroshima.

Taking into account unintended consequences is not regarded as a necessary component of strategic thinking in Washington. No wonder our grand project to remake the world in our own image, shape the future, and determine the outcome of history has proved to be as much of a flop as the world revolution the old commies were preaching.

“Collateral damage” is what somebody’s grandparents with their heads blown off are called today.

Of course, this is not generally how we talk about things. We practice what Ted Snider in a recent blog post called “a doctrine of historical creationism,” an interpretation of current events that is manipulated by selecting a convenient starting point for them—one that leaves out prior events and the larger setting in which they are unfolding.

There’s an authoritarian strain to this need to restrict historical precedent and turn serious issues into comic book narratives. We encounter it both in political commentary on Russia, Ukraine, Gaza, and Iran and in the way domestic issues are discussed. For people with long memories, this is not just infuriating but also terrifying.

This is a just war; we ought to remind the population of the next country we invade. People killed by our bombs can regard themselves as extremely lucky.

Portable hell, the kind that can fit comfortably inside your head, despite the vast crowds of the damned and all that fire and smoke, is what you end up with after reading the world news these days.

It’s strange that reporters continue to ask our elected representatives for their opinions, as if the rich who contributed millions to their campaigns would allow them to have any of their own.

A society like ours in which the wealthy are spending millions to prevent the minimum wage from being raised for those sinking deeper and deeper into poverty, and to sabotage health insurance coverage for those who have none, is not a society at all but a state of war, as Mark Twain would have said.

Who would have thought that people with a thorough knowledge of history and science would become pariahs among their fellow citizens?

It’s been a while since I last read anyone, aside from palpable hucksters, make an argument that the world is getting to be a better place, or that we are about to turn a new leaf in this country.

“Privatization” is what the transfer of public funds into the pockets of the few is called.

I forget: Who said, “He lives most gaily who knows how to deceive himself”?

The gourmet recipe in the dining section of the Times was Fisherman’s Beef Stew—or did I get that wrong?

A man changed himself back into a monkey through an operation and returned to live in the trees happily ever after, I once read in a tabloid waiting in line at the supermarket. I’m thinking that may not really be so bad.

May these beautiful summer days that remain pass with as little hurry as a pregnant nun going to confession.

Link: To Zion and Back

Ismail Khalidi interviews Max Blumenthal on the rise of Israeli extremism.

Max Blumenthal’s 2009 book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party, was positively reviewed and garnered plenty of media attention, landing on the New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists. Progressives and liberals embraced Blumenthal’s analysis of the extreme right in the US, and championed his prowess as a writer and investigative journalist. His latest book, on the other hand, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Nation Books), which he describes as a “compendium of Israeli extremism,” has received far less mainstream coverage since its release in October 2013, and has opened Blumenthal up to a barrage of criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. Upon the release of Goliath, The Nation’s Eric Alterman wrote a scathing review, “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook,” which Blumenthal later responded to in the same publication.

Blumenthal is known, in part, for his viral (and later censored) YouTube video reports from West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in which he filmed groups of partying young Israelis (including many of American stock) around the time of President Obama’s first official trip to the region in 2009. In “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem on the Eve of Obama’s Cairo Address” and “Feeling the Hate in Tel Aviv,” Blumenthal and his Israeli-American colleagues captured flashes of casual intolerance and racism in Israeli society rarely seen in the West: young Israelis and American Jews directing racist taunts at President Obama and regurgitating ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab tropes with fervor. Goliath is in part an expansion on this theme, based on about a year’s worth of reporting in Israel/Palestine and five years of research.

While the book focuses on the rightward shift in Israel—from its settler population (well over half a million today) to its political class and its Russian newcomers—Blumenthal also gives us a glimpse into Israel’s marginalized anti-Zionist left and the lives of its liberal Tel Aviv elites, the latter making up the bulk of Israel’s Labor Party. Goliath differs from most mainstream reporting on the conflict in that it is not entirely Israel-centric. In Blumenthal’s Israel—unlike in most of the US media’s reporting or in Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land (Shavit was interviewed in Guernica in December)—Palestinians are not simply one-dimensional props in the background of Israel’s soul-searching about the past and decision-making about the future. Instead they are impossible to ignore.

I spoke with Blumenthal in a small sushi bar in the West Village during a break from his book tour. He was overflowing with analysis of the latest developments in Israel/Palestine (where he travels frequently). As in his writing, he does not shy from using words like “racist,” “fascist,” and “extremist” when describing certain Israeli policies and individuals. Blumenthal insists that he does not use them for shock value, but to accurately express what he has seen firsthand. “After a few months [in Israel],” he told me as we discussed the book, “you stop noticing every incarnation of radicalism and violence in Israeli society. It is so saturated into the reality that it practically fades into the scenery.”

Ismail Khalidi for Guernica

Guernica: The last month has seen the killing of three teenage Israeli settlers near Hebron and a massive Israeli sweep into the West Bank in which hundreds of Palestinians were arrested, injured, and killed. Earlier this month a Palestinian teen was abducted and killed by Israelis in Jerusalem (who are said to have burned the boy alive). Now the Israeli military is engaged in an offensive against Gaza while Hamas fires rockets toward Israel. What do the last month’s events tell us about the state of the conflict?

Max Blumenthal: The entire crisis occurred against the backdrop of a peace process that Netanyahu was blamed for destroying and in the wake of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal, which the US recognized and which Netanyahu was determined to destroy as well. The kidnapping of the three Israeli teens by what appears to be a rogue Hamas cell apparently seeking to generate some kind of prisoner exchange was too good of an opportunity for him to waste.

And so, as I’ve documented with on-the-record sources, Israeli investigators, Netanyahu and the honchos of the military-intelligence apparatus knew by the sound of gunshots on a recorded call by the teens to the police that the teens were killed right away. And they chose to lie, not only to the teens’ parents, whom they sought to deploy as props in their global PR campaign, but to the Israeli public. Through a military gag order, the Israeli media was not allowed to report on the investigation or the details of the recorded phone call. With the Israeli public and the world convinced that the teens were alive, Israeli troops ransacked the West Bank under the guise of a rescue mission, and embarked on a global propaganda campaign centering around the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys. The Israeli public was not emotionally prepared for the discovery of the teens’ bodies because they thought they would be returned home as Gilad Shalit was. So Netanyahu and his inner circle set the public up for a truly dangerous reaction.

In Goliath, I detailed the rise of anti-Arab mobs comprised of soccer thugs and of the burgeoning anti-miscegenation movement in Israel. Netanyahu’s manipulation of the kidnapping and his response to the discovery of the dead teens—he said, “Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created”—validated these elements and emboldened them as they set out for revenge. Those young men who abducted the Palestinian teen Mohamed Abu Khdeir met at one of the revenge rallies in Jerusalem; they were fans of the soccer club Beitar Jerusalem, which I wrote about in Goliath and whose racist history is absolutely legion. The killers forced Abu Khdeir to drink gasoline and burned him alive. In a place where an eliminationist strain of racism has been so thoroughly mainstreamed, it might actually be a misnomer to call them “extremists.”

Now we come to the bombardment of Gaza. Netanyahu had blamed “all of Hamas” for the three teens’ kidnapping, calling them and the teens’ killers “human animals.” So while he is forced to denounce vigilante violence after helping inspire it, he needs to allow a society seething with resentment and thirsting for vengeance with a release valve. That is the function that Gaza serves in the Israeli psyche. Under Hamas’s governance, it is at once the epicenter of evil and the collective punching bag. There is no evidence that anyone there had any role whatsoever in the kidnapping in the West Bank. But they must pay the price in their own blood.

Once again I find myself saying, “Unfortunately, I was right.” And I say that with a certain level of frustration because I sensed that there were many, particularly in liberal Jewish circles, who did not want to see the Israel that unfolded on the pages of my book and who studiously ignored the warnings I tried to relay to them. Now they are forced to reckon with the reality and don’t really seem to have the words to effectively explain it all away as they used to be able to.

Guernica: Talk about your approach to capturing and writing about experiences in which you essentially go undercover. How do you gain access without arousing suspicion?

Max Blumenthal: My privilege as a white Jewish American in Israel is a major factor in getting me so much access to the key institutions of the Jewish state. I traveled to Israel/Palestine last September and was mostly in Ramallah, the occupied pseudo-capital of the Palestinian Bantustan in the West Bank—the Palestinian “state” that never will be. A lot of Palestinian-Americans have hawiyas, the green Palestinian IDs that limit them to the West Bank. These folks generally have the same education level as I do. Some of them work for NGOs in Ramallah, including outfits that have been raided by Israeli forces, and they have given up fairly comfortable lives in the US to contribute to Palestinian society. But they cannot travel around the land like I can. Some of them have actually asked me to help sneak them into Jerusalem or into Jaffa, places they want to visit or to see, places that they have deep connections to—familial, cultural, professional—but which are off limits to them because they are Palestinians who hold Palestinian IDs. It’s really upsetting as an American to witness their predicament. Here in the US we’d be equals, or at least, we would technically enjoy the same legal rights. There they are inferior to me simply because I have J-positive blood and they don’t.

Guernica: You were able to enter the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and spent time there interviewing people for the book.

Max Blumenthal: I spent a lot of time there and I interviewed over a dozen lawmakers who were behind the parade of anti-democratic laws that were passed between 2009 and 2013. One of these was the “NGO Law,” which attempts to limit foreign funding for NGOs, a law very similar to one authorized by Vladimir Putin in Russia. Another law passed during this time was the “Nakba Law,” which is very similar to the law Turkey has on the books to suppress acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide. This law limits the rights of Palestinians to publicly observe the Nakba [the word Palestinians use, which means “catastrophe,” to refer to the dispossession of three-quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948]. It basically slaps penalties on organizations and NGOs that participate in these events. The “Acceptance to Communities Law” allows communities of up to four hundred family units to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity and religion, basically bringing Israel’s system of de facto segregation into de jure form. Winning the trust of these lawmakers was not very difficult as Max Blumenthal, the Jewish guy, even if I was posing adversarial questions. If I was a Palestinian reporter or even an African-American, they might have been more suspicious. Knesset members would frequently appeal to my Jewishness in an attempt to win me to their side.

Guernica: What about with more radical right-wing activists? How does that play out?

Max Blumenthal: I attended a party hosted by Im Tirtzu, a right-wing Israeli student group that kind of functions as the grassroots arm of Netanyahu and the Likud party. It aims to attack the NGOs and human rights groups and generally harass Palestinian-Israeli civil society. They stage counter-protests to the very small anti-war protests that happen on Israeli campuses, menace Palestinian students on those campuses, and blacklist “post-Zionist” academics. To get into the party, which was held at a bar in an affluent city called Herzliya, I just told the student activists at the door that I was an American-Jewish tourist and I had heard there was a party—I acted clueless. While I was there one of these Im Tirtzu apparatchiks sat down at the bar and began to hold forth. He reminded me of an American neocon, and even recommended to me the work of David Horowitz to explain why left wingers needed to be purged from the academy. And yet it was an otherwise mundane gathering, almost exclusively young guys wearing polo shirts and designer jeans listening to American music. You wouldn’t know they were extremists from the looks of them.

The night ended with a call for Ben Gurion University to fire twelve professors who Im Tirtzu deemed “post-Zionist” or insufficiently Zionist. So the Likud party, through its policies and its various wings and allies, is not only boycotting the Gaza Strip and Palestinian society in general, it is involved in organizing boycotts of Israel’s own national universities. This is completely consistent with the push to strip human rights NGOs of funding, punish Israeli citizens who boycott settlement products, gut Israeli high school textbooks of any reference to Palestinian dispossession, and generally realize Joseph McCarthy’s wildest fever dreams.

Guernica: In terms of the State of Israel, what are some trends not being reported in the mainstream media?

Max Blumenthal: The state is an ethnocracy, which means its institutions exist to provide privilege to one ethnic group over another and physically and legally exclude the “other.” This is the definition of extremism, or at least the basis for its promulgation and promotion.

I came into direct contact with the atmosphere of extremism immediately upon arrival. On the first night of an extended trip into ’48 Israel, I was staying in Jaffa, a once-vibrant Palestinian city, which is now a Palestinian ghetto of Tel Aviv that is being aggressively Judaized. Not too far from there is Bnei Brak, which is an ultra-Orthodox community. The people there were staging protests around the country at that point because the Supreme Court had passed a ruling forbidding an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school from segregating Mizrahi students and Ashkenazi students. While rampaging through the neighborhood, they set a huge fire in our dumpster. That was my first night in Jaffa! After a few months you stop noticing every incarnation of radicalism and violence. It is so saturated into your reality that it practically fades into the scenery.

Guernica: One does not typically get that impression reading mainstream US coverage.

Max Blumenthal: No. But it is right there if you choose to report it. Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner and the rest of the reporters at the New York Times Jerusalem bureau actually have to devote endless stores of energy to avoid reporting on all of the outrages unfolding all around them. Instead of reporting on the Prawer Plan to ethnically cleanse Bedouin citizens of Israel, for example, or the anti-African race riots in Tel Aviv—pivotal events in the history of the state of Israel—Rudoren covers a beauty contest for Holocaust survivors or takes to Facebook to complain about how she missed her spinning class but made up for it by scaling the steps of a building in Gaza destroyed by Israeli bombing. And when Kershner covers the national campaign to expel non-Jewish Africans, she focuses the story on the liberal Israelis and their anguished souls, rather than on the Africans who are being rounded up and placed in camps for the crime of not being Jewish. Just imagine if they went out and covered what was actually happening on the ground and clinically detailed the logic and planning behind it.

When I stayed in Jaffa, just five minutes south of Tel Aviv, I witnessed racist extremism all around me through the state-orchestrated process of Judaization. In Jaffa, this process takes the form of a very politicized kind of gentrification, with wealthy Tel Aviv tech entrepreneurs and wealthy American Jews being planted into the heart of this poor, deliberately neglected community—where, by the way, there are/were five hundred standing eviction orders, almost all for Palestinian residents. Judaization in Jaffa also has relied on the increasing presence of religious nationalists not so different from the fanatical settlers in the West Bank. My favorite fish restaurant, a Palestinian-owned place where I would sometimes hang out with friends and colleagues from Tel Aviv, was attacked and firebombed by right-wing extremists. A house down the street was attacked and just weeks before one of the oldest Muslim graveyards in Palestine was vandalized in a “price-tag” attack by settlers. This is inside the heart of “Israel proper.” Soon after that a group of settlers won an auction to build a religious nationalist yeshiva in the middle of Jaffa.

Guernica: How does the Israeli left regard the country’s rightward trend?

Max Blumenthal: It was not the right-wing Russians or the gun-toting settlers who carried out the Nakba. The Nakba is the legacy of Zionism’s putatively socialist wing. It was the grandfathers and mothers of the “enlightened public” of today’s Israel who literally drove tens of thousands of indigenous Palestinians into the sea in 1947-48 all along the Mediterranean coast, or who marched them at gunpoint to Ramallah. In the years leading up to the Nakba, during the 1920s and ’30s, Socialist Zionists implemented the project of Kibush Ha’avodah or the “Conquest of Labor,” establishing Jewish-only businesses and residential communities while organizing boycotts of Jewish businesses that hired Arabs. That meant attacking fellow Jews who didn’t uphold the same concept of separation and maintained business and community ties with Palestinian Arabs. So the legacy of the Zionist left of Tel Aviv is the Nakba, and the perpetuation of the Nakba is required to preserve Tel Aviv as one of the most homogenous cities on earth. There are fewer Arabs in Tel Aviv, one of the largest cities in the Middle East, than there are in Chicago, the largest city in the American Midwest. Just think about that for a second. How do you accomplish such a remarkable feat of social engineering without massive violence?

When the popular committee and some of the Arab civic activists in Jaffa asked for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality to include some Arabic writing on the city log to acknowledge the Arab presence and tradition and history there, Ron Huldai, the mayor, rejected the idea out of hand. He argued that there were so few Arabs living in the municipality that he had no reason to officially acknowledge their presence. This instance perfectly symbolized the form and function of Tel Aviv, the city that stands as the economic and political bulwark of settler-colonial apartheid, but also as its liberal mask. Without the Iron Wall, there would be no Tel Aviv bubble.

Guernica: The term “demographic threat” is bandied about and repeated here in the US, by journalists and liberal Zionists and politicians. Secretary of State John Kerry used this kind of language this past December, in fact, to refer to a “demographic time-bomb.” What does it mean, in effect?

Max Blumenthal: The term “demographic threat” is the language that justifies ethnic cleansing, transfer, ghettoization, siege, exclusion, refugee camps, and displacement and separation. As such, it is the term that distills the logic of Zionism’s approach to non-Jews.

This language has pretty dark connotations in the US, echoing Southern antebellum fears of slave revolts in areas where blacks outnumbered the white agrarian class. In today’s America, if figures as extreme as Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck were to say outright that we must stop the Mexicans or Muslims or what have you from staying in the US because they’re having too many babies and we’ll lose the character of white Christian America by 2050, they’d face serious consequences. You can be a bigot in the US, but you can’t come out and openly declare your support for racial nationalism. Only Zionists get to proclaim their fear of a brown planet while simultaneously maintaining a patina of liberal respectability.

Guernica: How does what’s taking place in Israel compare to the rightward anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim trends in Europe?

Max Blumenthal: I think we need to draw a contextual distinction between what the neo-fascists of Europe would like to do and what the state of Israel has done, and is currently doing. While rightists in Europe advocate the exclusion of immigrants, especially Muslims, and seek to prevent all forms of immigration, to conduct mass deportations and make immigrants’ lives horrible in order to preserve the white, Christian character of their countries, they are still not advocating anything as extreme as mainstream Zionists are. None of these figures—at least none that I’m aware of—are hatching plans at the government level for mass population transfer, or actually ejecting hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from their homes and driving them over the border by force. Over 26,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967, mainly for demographic reasons, and today many mainstream liberal Zionists advocate “land swaps.” This is code for stripping hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel living near the Green Line of their citizenship in order to preserve Israel’s ethnic purity. This actually puts liberal Zionists to the right of European neo-fascists.

Guernica: How does 1967 figure into the equation for liberal Zionists?

Max Blumenthal: The Zionist left talks about 1967 as the greatest disaster in the history of Israel, but they are not necessarily beating their chests over the suffering of Palestinians under the occupation. It certainly pains them to have to recognize that Israel has not proven to be a benevolent colonial overlord, that it has not lifted up the Palestinian standard of living as many left-wing Zionists believed they could when they captured the West Bank and Gaza. What really destroys the Zionist left about the legacy of 1967 is that it led to the rise of the religious nationalist right, which has gradually supplanted them as the captains of the Jewish state by vowing to complete the unfinished process that began in 1948. Another reason the Zionist left gets so upset about 1967 is that the whole project of Greater Israel threatens the ethnocracy they founded—that the possibility of annexing more Palestinian territory means the possible absorption of hundreds of thousands of demographic threats, of human contaminants to the ethnically pure Jewish state. And so they campaign endlessly for a two-state solution, or better yet, a one-and-a-half state solution, to correct the error they committed in 1967.

What I have tried to do in my journalism is to document the state of the Zionist left and Israel’s “enlightened public” in its current phase. And what I have found is a largely detached sector of society that has little ability to influence the facts on the ground and which has turned inward, into their Tel Aviv bubble. Thanks to the momentary success of Netanyahu’s strategy of “peace without peace” and the disappearance of Palestinians after the Second Intifada, the “enlightened public” is able to experience a sense of European-style normality. They don’t need to worry about the occupation when there is no resistance to it, when Ehud Barak’s vision of Zionism as “a villa in the jungle” has been seemingly realized.

This is why the last leader of the Labor Party, Shelly Yachimovich, basically conceded there was no hope of ending the occupation and turned her party’s attention to lowering cottage cheese prices and making improvements in the national insurance system. She filled her party with the leaders of the 2011 tent protests, this incredibly peculiar national protest movement that consisted of thousands of young Israelis filling the streets to call for “social justice” while completely ignoring and refusing to acknowledge the occupation. The current state of the Labor Party reflects the normalization of settler-colonialism to the point that it seems invisible. This is why the BDS (boycott, divest, and sanctions) movement upsets liberal Zionists so greatly: it threatens to remind the “good” Israel that it is an active participant in an anachronistic project of settler-colonialism and that it can’t experience real normalization until Palestinians are granted rights.

Guernica: You lived for a time in Jerusalem. Talk about the scene there.

Max Blumenthal: I dedicate about a third of the book to my experiences in central Jerusalem, where I lived on a top floor walkup with a bunch of leftist Hebrew University students who had draped a banner out the window that read “Free Gaza.” And below us was a pedestrian shopping mall frequented by settlers and American-Jewish fanatics. The flat was a kind of sanctuary from virtually everything that existed outside our front door and it served as a sort of smoke-filled situation room for local leftists. I was there at a really unique time, when the movement to protest the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah just fifteen minutes away from us was at its height and the Palestinian popular struggle in the West Bank was still gathering momentum. These were doomed movements, of course, but they at least offered us a way to stave off the sense of dread at creeping fascism.

To give you an idea of the environment, just up the street from the flat was a bookstore called Pomerantz with a big picture on the window of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who spied for Israel and is in jail for life, and who right wingers are determined to see released. I walked into that bookstore to look for a book [Torat Hamelech, published in 2009] that been described in the Israeli paper Maariv as a “guide to killing non-Jews.” It was written by two settler rabbis from a yeshiva in Yitzhar, near Nablus, whose salaries were tendered by the state of Israel. The purpose of the book was basically to provide religious sanction for genocide; it was like a guide for when it is permissible to slaughter gentiles framed within a really demented vision of Jewish law. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, it has sold more copies than Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. So I went to Pomerantz to order the book because I wanted to get a comprehensive translation of it online, and I encountered the owner, a former firefighter from the US who had a religious awakening and moved to Israel. He says to me, “Look at that camera behind you. It goes straight to the Shabak.” It became clear that the store was under surveillance because it was a gathering place of religious nationalist settlers, the kind who carry out “price tag” attacks and sop up texts like Torat Hamelech.

A few days later there was a convention at the Jerusalem Ramada dedicated to defending the publication of this guide to killing non-Jews. I went with my roommate, a really remarkable guy named Yossi David, who was raised ultra-Orthodox and has turned into a full-fledged secular leftist. When we entered the hotel we found a veritable who’s who of state-funded rabbis, rabbis from yeshivas in major Israeli cities, gathered on a panel to defend this book before several hundred right-wing activists. When we entered, prayers were underway, and Yossi immediately joined them to avoid having us stand out—this goes back to your first question about how I was able to get so much access. So I reluctantly started davening with these settlers and I distinctly remember how gut-wrenching it was to chant the Kaddish with them, to say the mourner’s prayer alongside a bunch of people I consider to be racists. But here I was praying in the same hotel ballroom as Dov Lior, the rabbi who called for live human experimentation on Palestinian prisoners, and Baruch Marzel, the settler thug who runs anti-miscegenation vigilante squads, and Michael Ben-Ari, then a Knesset member who told me that Jordan was actually a part of Israel.

When the conference began in earnest, one major state rabbi after another rose up and defended this genocidal book, not necessarily on its merits, but because they feared that if it was censored, their own speech would be limited. And all of this is taking place in a Ramada banquet hall with chandeliers overhead and fake houseplants everywhere—a perfectly appropriate setting to illustrate the normalization of racist extremism in Israeli life.

Guernica: Is this kind of ideology widespread?

Max Blumenthal: Just consider a poll conducted by Ynet, the online version of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most influential paper, which showed that 46 percent of Israelis support “price tag” attacks on Palestinians, and that a vast majority of religious Israelis favor them. You can see how far the most extreme settlers have gotten in terms of influencing the national consciousness.

Guernica: And these settlers are funded by the state?

Max Blumenthal: The most extreme religious nationalist rabbis, yeshivas, and settlements—those I described earlier—are state-funded and also funded heavily by American NGOS with 501(c)(3) tax-deductible donations. While the US government sends the directors of Muslim-American charities to jail for life for sending charity to the Gaza Strip, the Central Fund of Israel, which is based right here in New York City on 6th Avenue at Marcus Brothers Textiles, sends millions to some of the most extreme settlers who are directly involved in terrorist attacks on defenseless Palestinians. The yeshiva at Yitzhar is a prime example. Though the State Department has actually classified settler attacks on Palestinians as terror attacks, the US Treasury Department does nothing to regulate the American nonprofits that fund the attackers.

Guernica: While your book has aroused a lot of controversy, commentators appear to have embraced Ari Shavit’s recent book, My Promised Land.

Max Blumenthal: It is depressing but not shocking to witness the liberal intelligentsia embrace Ari Shavit so enthusiastically. Shavit is someone who is as consistently wrong as Thomas Friedman on major issues, and at least as much a courtier of power. Shavit has done the bidding of Ehud Barak under the cover of legitimate journalism. I suppose it was fairly predictable that Friedman offered him a rave review, or that Leon Wieseltier and David Brooks threw themselves behind My Promised Land. I have to admit, though, that I was a little surprised that David Remnick, someone who has demonstrated sophistication on Israel-Palestine issues, hosted a lavish book party for Shavit and served as his interlocutor at his major event in New York City after running Shavit’s apologia for ethnic cleansing in the pages of The New Yorker. We need to recognize the significance of Shavit’s support from so many major liberal intellectuals and pundits in the light of his book and its arguments.

In his book, Shavit approaches 1948 as I do, but from an opposite perspective. He argues that as soon as the Zionist movement endeavored to establish a Jewish state in historic Palestine, the campaign of mass ethnic cleansing that occurred in 1948 was inevitable. I agree with that. And I agree with him that 1948, not 1967, is the source of Palestinian grievances. But while I regard the Nakba as an ongoing crime that needs to be prosecuted and reversed, just as anyone should regard any act of ethnic cleansing, Shavit defends its necessity and lectures Palestinians trapped in squalid refugee camps to just get over it. In this very magazine, Shavit declared that the Palestinians need to “grow up” and claimed that they are “addicted to victimhood” as though Holocaust-obsessed Israelis are not. He goes on to assert that “the Jews are the ultimate victims of the twentieth century,” meaning that Jewish suffering legitimizes the suffering they visited on Palestinians—the ends justify the means—and that that suffering should insulate Israel from any political consequences simply because it asserts its identity as a state of the Jews.

This is obviously an intellectually untenable argument and as a case for national legitimacy it is absolutely laughable. But it is also pretty morally repugnant. So we need to reflect on what this says about Shavit’s liberal Zionist-American promoters; what does it say that they are throwing their intellectual weight behind a prominent defender of ethnic cleansing? And we need to ask how Shavit is able to define himself as a man of the left, as a voice of morality, without anything resembling a challenge from his interviewers.

Link: Letter from Gaza by a Norwegian Doctor

Dearest friends,

The last night was extreme. The “ground invasion” of Gaza resulted in scores and carloads with maimed, torn apart, bleeding, shivering, dying - all sorts of injured Palestinians, all ages, all civilians, all innocent.

The heroes in the ambulances and in all of Gaza’s hospitals are working 12-24 hour shifts, grey from fatigue and inhuman workloads (without payment all in Shifa for the last 4 months), they care, triage, try to understand the incomprehensible chaos of bodies, sizes, limbs, walking, not walking, breathing, not breathing, bleeding, not bleeding humans. HUMANS!

Now, once more treated like animals by “the most moral army in the world” (sic!).

My respect for the wounded is endless, in their contained determination in the midst of pain, agony and shock; my admiration for the staff and volunteers is endless, my closeness to the Palestinian “sumud” gives me strength, although in glimpses I just want to scream, hold someone tight, cry, smell the skin and hair of the warm child, covered in blood, protect ourselves in an endless embrace - but we cannot afford that, nor can they.

Ashy grey faces - Oh NO! Not one more load of tens of maimed and bleeding, we still have lakes of blood on the floor in the ER, piles of dripping, blood-soaked bandages to clear out - oh - the cleaners, everywhere, swiftly shovelling the blood and discarded tissues, hair, clothes,cannulas - the leftovers from death - all taken away … to be prepared again, to be repeated all over. More then 100 cases came to Shifa in the last 24 hrs. Enough for a large well trained hospital with everything, but here - almost nothing: no electricity, water, disposables, drugs, OR-tables, instruments, monitors - all rusted and as if taken from museums of yesterday’s hospitals. But they do not complain, these heroes. They get on with it, like warriors, head on, enormously resolute.

And as I write these words to you, alone, on a bed, my tears flow, the warm but useless tears of pain and grief, of anger and fear. This is not happening!

An then, just now, the orchestra of the Israeli war-machine starts its gruesome symphony again, just now: salvos of artillery from the navy boats just down on the shores, the roaring F16, the sickening drones (Arabic ‘Zennanis’, the hummers), and the cluttering Apaches. So much made in and paid by the US.

Mr. Obama - do you have a heart?

I invite you - spend one night - just one night - with us in Shifa. Disguised as a cleaner, maybe.

I am convinced, 100%, it would change history.

Nobody with a heart AND power could ever walk away from a night in Shifa without being determined to end the slaughter of the Palestinian people.

But the heartless and merciless have done their calculations and planned another “dahyia” onslaught on Gaza.

The rivers of blood will keep running the coming night. I can hear they have tuned their instruments of death.

Please. Do what you can. This, THIS cannot continue.

Mads Gilbert MD PhD
Professor and Clinical Head
Clinic of Emergency Medicine
University Hospital of North Norway

Link: Cigarettes and Climate Change

I am a smoker, and I am in denial. It isn’t that I don’t believe that cigarettes will kill me. I do. It isn’t that I don’t believe that I’m addicted. I know I am. Like most addicts, my denial takes the form of dissonance: I rationalize, I procrastinate, I make token gestures and shop for comparisons. Distraction is easy: I read while I smoke. Anything to avoid looking that monster in the eyes.

These are not novel forms of coping. Among more private kinds of existential crises—the junkie, the smoker, the troubling lump beneath the skin, and the marriage on the brink—denial is rarely outright. You know you have a problem; the trick is in refusing to acknowledge it.

It’s strange, then, that in the case of climate change—a cognitively torturous existential threat exceeding the sum of all our private ones by some incomprehensible order of magnitude—we tell an uncomplicated story about two stark sides. On one hand are the scientists; on the other, the skeptics. The skeptics don’t believe the monster’s there. The scientists (and activists, and journalists) endeavor to persuade them. When this latter side succeeds, the story goes, we will finally take action. In the meantime, we sit and hope that day won’t be too late.

That story isn’t true.

In American political life desire is rarely synonymous with will. If mere consensus made it so, then today we might count single-payer healthcare, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a guaranteed federal minimum wage among our national accomplishments. Each, at one time in our history, had the tacit approval of the majority. The reasons for their failure are complex and varied, but the consistent lesson is that tepid support, no matter how broad, does not change policy. Only the concerted efforts of a well-organized advocacy do. When measures pass, it is because an active constituency has engineered their victory, regardless of how many or how few citizens were basically okay with the idea. So it has been, on the left and on the right, from the American Revolution to the death of campaign finance laws.

An exhaustive conversion of the skeptics is not what stands between The United States and climate change reform. This is a good thing. If it were, then we’d be wiser to surrender now and enjoy the planet while it lasts us. But despite their stubborn numbers and friends in well-financed places, the Ted Cruzes of the world lack the power to long block meaningful reform. Our inaction these last decades is not a consequence of their resistance, but rather of the absence of sufficient pressure from those of us in the reality-based community, engaged in our more insidious forms of denial.

We are the problem. Those of us who, when confronted with the existential dread posed by global warming, do not deny the presence of the monster, but do everything within our power not to look it in the eyes.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Climate change—like addiction, like illness, like trauma and turmoil—is a threat to our sanity; a train of thought so stressful that the psychology of coping can’t help kicking in. It’s just too horrible to focus on for long, and so we do what we have always done in the face of crippling terror. We deny—not by rejecting the threat, but by avoiding it. Sometimes this takes the form of minimizing the threat, hoping that climate change plays out like only the mildest of our models’ projections. Sometimes we try wishful thinking, maintaining undue faith in some miraculous hi-tech solution. Most often, we just settle on escapism: thinking, reading, caring, and arguing about anything else. Anything that feels easier to tackle, anything that won’t kill us if we don’t. We’ll quit smoking next year, next year, next year.

I don’t have a grand solution for this dissonance, much less one for the multitude of international challenges that would face even the most devoted effort to keep our climate at bay. But I do have one small suggestion. Like all addicts in denial, we have our friendly enablers. Chief among these is the political press.

I don’t mean doctrinaire reactionary rags. I mean the mainstream and leftist publications, erstwhile environmentalists who would never dream of engaging in overtly skeptical denial. The Atlantic, The New Republic, and the New York Times all have robust environmental sections. But this, in a way, is the problem; they consign any mention of climate change to a clearly labeled box—which is a great help to those of us who are looking to avoid actively contemplating a terrifying truth. Meanwhile, their other sections, without malice or intention, become complicit in our denial. They publish stories about the future, about technology and medicine and politics, without any mention of a warming globe. “Researchers believe that in a hundred years . . .”; “By mid-century, the electoral map might . . . .” We all know how these stories go. I’ve even written some of them.

This futurism enables our denial. Like a Norman Rockwell painting that invites its audience into a shared fantasy about the past, these stories solicit a shared fantasy of the future–one where interesting possibilities of population, medicine, technology, and politics exist without the horrifying context of civilizational collapse. These stories fail to mention that quantum computing will be more difficult to research without energy. Many populations will be irrevocably impacted by famine. We can expect the long-term voting trends of Florida to change when half of Miami is underwater. And yet we’re only made to think about these things when we choose to read the “Green” sections of our newspapers and magazines.

I’m not suggesting that we cease to write stories about the future. But I am suggesting this: as a matter of political responsibility, magazines and newspapers should adopt a provision of their style guide requiring that any claim which is dependent on the continuity of present civilization be followed by an asterisk. At the bottom of the page, I propose something simple: “Assuming green house gases are controlled,” or “Contingent on a solution to climate change.”

Intervention requires that we close off the escape routes from our dread. We must be made to look the monster in the eyes, and do so every day. It will be unbearable at first; in self-defense, we might even find it obnoxious. But perhaps it would serve to nudge us just enough, to make us think about the problem until we do some thing about it. Then we could go back to such stories, confident that their contingencies won’t be spoiled by the rising tide.

Link: Israel does not want peace

Rejectionism is embedded in Israel’s most primal beliefs. There, at the deepest level, lies the concept that this land is destined for the Jews alone.

Israel does not want peace. There is nothing I have ever written that I would be happier to be proved wrong about. But the evidence is piling up. In fact, it can be said that Israel has never wanted peace – a just peace, that is, one based on a just compromise for both sides. It’s true that the routine greeting in Hebrew is Shalom (peace) – shalom when one leaves and shalom when one arrives. And, at the drop of a hat, almost every Israeli will say he wants peace, of course he does. But he’s not referring to the kind of peace that will bring about the justice without which there is no peace and there will be no peace. Israelis want peace, not justice, certainly not anything based on universal values. Thus, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Not only is there no peace: In recent years, Israel has moved away from even the aspiration to make peace. It has despaired utterly of it. Peace has disappeared from the Israeli agenda, its place taken by the collective anxieties that are systematically implanted, and by personal, private matters that now take precedence over all else.

The Israeli longing for peace seemingly died about a decade ago, after the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000, the dissemination of the lie that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, and, of course, the horrific blood-soaked period of the second intifada. But the truth is that even before that, Israel never really wanted peace. Israel has never, not for a minute, treated the Palestinians as human beings with equal rights. It has never viewed their distress as understandable human and national distress.

The Israeli peace camp, too – if ever there was such a thing – also died a lingering death amid the harrowing scenes of the second intifada and the no-partner lie. All that remained were a handful of organizations that were as determined and devoted as they were ineffectual in the face of the delegitimization campaigns mounted against them. Israel, therefore, was left with its rejectionist stance.

The single most overwhelming item of evidence of Israel’s rejection of peace is, of course, the settlements project. From the dawn of its existence, there has never been a more reliable or more precise litmus test for Israel’s true intentions than this particular enterprise. In plain words: The builders of settlements want to consolidate the occupation, and those who want to consolidate the occupation do not want peace. That’s the whole story in a nutshell.

On the assumption that Israel’s decisions are rational, it is impossible to accept construction in the territories and the aspiration to peace as mutually coexisting. Every act of building in the settlements, every mobile home and every balcony, conveys rejection. If Israel had wanted to achieve peace through the Oslo Accords, it would at least have stopped the construction in the settlements at its own initiative. That this did not happen proves that Oslo was fraudulent, or at best the chronicle of a failure foretold. If Israel had wanted to achieve peace at Taba, at Camp David, at Sharm el-Sheikh, in Washington or in Jerusalem, its first move should have been to end all construction in the territories. Unconditionally. Without a quid pro quo. The fact that Israel did not is proof that it did not want a just peace.

But the settlements were only a touchstone of Israel’s intentions. Its rejectionism is embedded far more deeply – in its DNA, its bloodstream, its raison d’être, its most primal beliefs. There, at the deepest level, lies the concept that this land is destined for the Jews alone. There, at the deepest level, is entrenched the value of “am sgula” – God’s “treasured people” – and “God chose us.” In practice, this is translated to mean that, in this land, Jews are allowed to do what is forbidden to others. That is the point of departure, and there is no way to get from there to a just peace. There is no way to reach a just peace when the name of the game is the dehumanization of the Palestinians. No way to achieve peace when the demonization of the Palestinians is hammered into people’s heads day after day. Those who are convinced that every Palestinian is a suspicious person and that every Palestinian wants “to throw the Jews into the sea” will never make peace with the Palestinians. Most Israelis are convinced of the truth of both those statements.

In the past decade, the two peoples have been separated from each another. The average young Israeli will never meet his Palestinian peer, other than during his army service (and then only if he does his service in the territories). Nor will the average young Palestinian ever meet an Israeli his own age, other than the soldier who huffs and puffs at him at the checkpoint, or invades his home in the middle of the night, or in the person of the settler who usurps his land or torches his groves.

Consequently, the only encounter between the two people is between the occupiers, who are armed and violent, and the occupied, who are despairing and also turn to violence. Gone are the days when Palestinians worked in Israel and Israelis shopped in Palestine. Gone is the period of the half-normal and quarter-equal relations that existed for a few decades between the two peoples that share the same piece of territory. It is very easy, in this state of affairs, to incite and inflame the two peoples against one another, to spread fears and to instill new hatreds on top of those that already exist. This, too, is a sure recipe for non-peace.

So it was that a new Israeli yearning sprang up: the desire for separation: “They will be there and we will be here (and also there).” At a time when the majority of Palestinians – an assessment I allow myself to make after decades of covering the territories – still want coexistence, even if less and less, most Israelis want disengagement and separation, but without paying the price. The two-state vision has gained widespread adherence, but without any intention to implement it in practice. Most Israelis are in favor, but not now and maybe not even here. They have been trained to believe that there is no partner for peace – a Palestinian partner, that is – but that there is an Israeli partner.

Unfortunately, the truth is almost the reverse. The Palestinian non-partners no longer have any chance to prove that they are partners; the Israeli non-partners are convinced that they are interlocutors. So began the process in which Israeli conditions, obstacles and difficulties were heaped up, one more milestone in Israeli rejectionism. First came the demand for a cessation of terrorism; then the demand for a change of leadership (Yasser Arafat as a stumbling block); and after that Hamas became the hurdle. Now it’s the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Israel considers every step it takes – from mass political arrests to building in the territories – to be legitimate, whereas every Palestinian move is “unilateral.”

The only country on the planet with no borders is so far unwilling to delineate even the compromise borders it is ready to be satisfied with. Israel has not internalized the fact that, for the Palestinians, the borders of 1967 are the mother of all compromises, the red line of justice (or relative justice). For the Israelis, they are “suicide borders.” This is why the preservation of the status quo has become the true Israeli aim, the primary goal of Israeli policy, almost its be-all and end-all. The problem is that the existing situation cannot last forever. Historically, few nations have ever agreed to live under occupation without resistance. And the international community, too, is one day apt to utter a firm pronouncement on this state of affairs, with accompanying punitive measures. It follows that the Israeli goal is unrealistic.

Disconnected from reality, the majority of Israelis pursue their regular way of life. In their mind’s eye the world is always against them, and the areas of occupation on their doorstep are beyond their realm of interest. Anyone who dares criticize the occupation policy is branded an anti-Semite, every act of resistance is perceived as an existential threat. All international opposition to the occupation is read as the “delegitimizing” of Israel and as a provocation to the country’s very existence. The world’s seven billion people – most of whom are against the occupation – are wrong, and six million Israeli Jews – most of whom support the occupation – are right. That’s the reality in the eyes of the average Israeli.

Add to this the repression, the concealment and the obfuscation, and you have another explanation for the rejectionism: Why should anyone strive for peace as long as life in Israel is good, calm prevails and the reality is concealed? The only way the besieged Gaza Strip can remind people of its existence is by firing rockets, and the West Bank only gets onto the agenda these days when blood is shed there. Similarly, the viewpoint of the international community is only taken into account when it tries to impose boycotts and sanctions, which in their turn immediately generate a campaign of self-victimization studded with blunt – and at times also impertinent – historical accusations.

This, then, is the gloomy picture. It contains not a ray of hope. The change will not happen on its own, from within Israeli society, as long as that society continues to behave as it does. The Palestinians have made more than one mistake, but their mistakes are marginal. Basic justice is on their side, and basic rejectionism is the Israelis’ purview. The Israelis want occupation, not peace.

I only hope I am wrong

Link: ‘A Government Of Thugs’: How Canada Treats Environmental Journalists

I attempted to enter Canada on a Tuesday, flying into the small airport at Fort McMurray, Alberta, waiting for my turn to pass through customs.

“What brings you to Fort Mac?” a Canada Border Services Agency official asked. “I’m a journalist,” I said. “I’m here to see the tar sands.” He pointed me to border security. Another official, a tall, clean-shaven man, asked the same question. “I’m here to see the tar sands.” he frowned. “You mean oil sands. We don’t have tar here.”

Up until the 1960s, the common name for Canada’s massive reserves of heavy bitumen mixed with sand was “tar sands.” Now, the phrase is officially considered a colloquialism, with “oil sands” being the accurate name, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. But “tar sands” is not really an informal phrase in Canada as much as it is a symbol of your views. If you say tar sands, you’re an environmentalist. If you say tar sands, you’re the enemy.

“We might have to send you back to the States,” the official said, after asking if I had working papers. I didn’t, so I phoned a colleague staying at a nearby hotel. “This guy at border security says I need working papers or something and that he’s gonna send me back to the States,” I said.

“Why did you say I was going to send you back to the States? I didn’t say that,” the official said after I hung up. “See, you’re already misrepresenting what’s going on here.”

My interrogation included details about where I was going, who I was meeting with, why I wanted to see the sands. The official had me open my bag so he could see if I was carrying cameras. Then he let me into Canada. “Because I’m being nice,” he said, and gave me a certificate stating that I must leave the country by Friday.

Can’t Criticize If You Don’t Know

In all, I was delayed for about 45 minutes — a relatively painless experience — but I did get the feeling I wasn’t the only one being hassled in Canada for an association with environmentalism. Indeed, as interviews with multiple reporters and activists show, the federal government places numerous obstacles in the way of those who try to disseminate information about the Canadian tar sands. Many believe this has amounted to a full-on war.

There are logical reasons why impeding environmental journalists could be in Canada’s interest. The tar sands are the third largest oil reserve in the world, and production is currently accelerating so quickly that the governmentpredicts capital investments will reach $218 billion over the next 25 years. Part of that investment could come from the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial proposal that, if approved, would bring up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil per day down to refineries in the U.S.

So it makes sense that Canadian officials may want to prevent environmental perspectives on Fort McMurray’s vast tar sands reserves, which have replaced thousands of acres of boreal forest with massive refineries and sprawling mining sites — shiny, black excavated deserts that sit next to glowing white ponds of chemical waste. A small portion of boreal forest remains, but it doesn’t do much to cover the scars.

From the air, you can see enormous white smokestacks 50 miles away. And from the ground, you can talk to those who have been physically harmed by accidental releases from the white ponds of tar sands chemical waste, called tailings ponds, which leech into the Athabasca river and flow downstream to First Nations communities like Fort Chip, where cancer rates have skyrocketed in the last 30 years.

Stories that describe the detrimental effects of Canada’s fossil fuel boom — not to mention the high carbon-intensityof tar sands oil extraction or unlikelihood that mining sites will ever be adequately reclaimed — threaten public support for projects like Keystone XL, and by extension, speedy and lucrative development.

‘A Culture Of Secrecy’

According to Tom Henheffer, executive director of the non-profit Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), the Canadian federal government has been actively working for the last decade to prevent journalists’ access to information, particularly in science-related fields. The trend only got worse, he said, when current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a fierce supporter of tar sands development, took office in 2006.

“It’s specifically very bad in science-related fields, but it extends into every other field,” Henheffer said. “This government has a culture of secrecy that is extremely harmful to Canadian society.”

This government has a culture of secrecy that is extremely harmful to Canadian society.

Henheffer, whose group in April released its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada Report Card, noted two main issues at play. One, he said, is an increase in the amount of bureaucracy journalists must go through to get information. The other is a gradual de-funding of research, so the information journalists want isn’t even created in the first place.

The CJFE’s report card gave a failing grade to Canada’s access-to-information (ATI) system, which saw delays beyond the legal time limit affecting almost 45 percent of information requests, and more than 80 percent of responses partially or mostly censored. That report card also slammed the government for cutting scientific research, dismissing more than 2,000 scientists and cutting 165 research programs affecting “almost every federal scientific and monitoring institution.”

The report also noted a nationwide “muzzling” of federal scientists, citing government efforts to ensure its scientists limit discussions with the media on their work — much of which includes the environmental and climate impacts of tar sands development. This was confirmed in 2007, when a leaked PowerPoint presentation from Environment Canada revealed that government scientists were told to refer all media queries to communications officers who would help them respond with “approved lines.”

The current climate, Henheffer said, is frustrating journalistic efforts throughout the country.

“They’ve essentially dismantled our access to information system,” he said. “It makes investigative journalism impossible.”

The ‘Extremist Threat’ Of Environmentalists

Along with access to information for journalists, Stephen Harper’s government has also been working to dismantle environmental groups, a fact that has been revealed, ironically, by document requests from journalists. Those documents show unprecedented attempts from agencies across the federal government to spy on, de-fund, and otherwise disrupt the efforts of environmental groups.

[Environmental] groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.

The most recent example of this has been a rigorous effort by the Canada Revenue Agency to target environmental groups for possible abuse of their nonprofit charity statuses, alleging they may be violating the limits on how much political advocacy work they can do. The CRA’s $8 million effort was launched in 2012, shortly after the pro-tar sands group Ethical Oil kicked off a public campaign to “expose the radical foreign funded environmental groups” criticizing the oil industry.

“There are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade,” Joe Oliver, then-Natural Resources Minister, wrote at the time. “These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects.”

One of the original groups targeted was ForestEthics, a British Columbia-based nonprofit with branches in Vancouver and San Francisco. One of the fiercest and more outspoken opponents of the tar sands and the proposedNorthern Gateway pipeline, the group responded by giving up its charitable status (thereby giving up tax breaks to its donors) so it could focus more on combating what it refers to as “attacks on the environment.”

“Ever since we formed the advocacy group we’ve been under further … ‘intense scrutiny’ I guess is the nicest way to put it, because the advocacy group is set up explicitly for the sake of taking on the Harper government,” ForestEthics tar sands campaigner Ben West said.

West said that since his group founded its advocacy arm, it has been a target of a recently-revealed spying effort by the Canadian federal government. That effort, revealed in November by a public records request from the Vancouver Observer, showed that officials had been sending spies to meetings of anti-tar sands groups, relaying their plans for rallies and strategies for public meetings.

What’s more, documents obtained in February by the Guardian revealed that both Canada’s national police force and intelligence agency view environmental activist protest activities as “forms of attack,” and depict those involved as national security threats. Greenpeace, for example, is officially regarded as an “extremist” threat.

West said the revelations have had a “chilling” effect on the groups’ volunteer and donor base.

“The word is out that ForestEthics is one of the groups that the federal government is paying close attention to, and that has an impact on people’s comfort levels and their desire to get involved,” West said. “If you look at the pieces of the documents we were able to get our hands on, they explain what was happening at meetings where you would have had to have been in the room to have known the content of that meeting.”

‘A Government Of Thugs’

In addition to the more-calculated attempts to prevent environmental criticism, multiple reporters and activists say they experience an egregious amount of defensiveness, spitefulness, and intimidation from the federal government that prevents them from doing their jobs effectively.

“We have a government of thugs in Ottawa these days who are absolutely ruthless,” said Andrew Nikiforuk, anaward-winning journalist who has been reporting critically on Canada’s oil and gas industry for more than 20 years. “It’s a hostility and thuggery, is the way I would describe it. That’s exactly what it is.”

We have a government of thugs in Ottawa these days who are absolutely ruthless.

Nikiforuk says he’s been shut out of government events, “slandered and libeled” by a member of the government’s conservative party, and repeatedly contacted by government flacks who criticize his reporting.

The most blatant example of government intimidation Nikiforuk can recall was when members of Canada’s Energy Resources Conservation Board actively tried to prevent the publication of his 2010 book, Tar Sands, claiming he made numerous factual errors and posting a long letter about it on its website. Nikifourk rebutted the claims, eventually winning the Society of Environmental Journalist’s Rachel Carson Book Award for his reporting.

Documentary and satire filmmakers Andy Cobb and Mike Damanskis also said they experienced government intimidation when, like me, they were detained at the Fort McMurray airport in October 2013. Unlike me, however, they were deported.

“He basically told us that the tar sands weren’t news, that he wasn’t recognizing us as journalists, and that if we wanted to come to Canada, we weren’t going to be able to do it today,” Damanskis said.

Though it seemed like at first they would be able to enter the country without working papers, Damanskis and Cobb said the border official had an “immediate change of heart” after watching a clip of their previous work — a videosatirizing the infamous Mayflower, Arkansas tar sands pipeline spill.

Border spokesperson Lisa White said she was not authorized to speak on specific cases, and declined to specify whether officers were allowed to make entry decisions based on the content of journalists’ work. She did say, however, that documentary filmmakers required working papers to enter Canada, and that all entry decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

“All decisions are made in accordance with Canadian law,” she said.

Swift And Snarky Push-Back

Of course, it’s important to note that journalists like Nikiforuk, Damaskis, and Cobb are more likely to get negative feedback from Canadian government officials because they are not, and don’t claim to be, completely objective. All three are openly and fiercely opposed to the speed of tar sands development.

But even reporters who are seemingly more objective toward development have been subject to government push-back. For example, Economist correspondent Madelaine Drohan said via e-mail that Alberta’s provincial government once posted a “defensive” response on its website to an article she wrote that mentioned leaks from tailings ponds, which are large lakes of tar sands waste. That response has since been removed, but Drohan said she remembers it happening.

“It made me think that the government was even more sensitive than the industry,” she said.

As for hostility from the Alberta provincial government, one journalist pointed specifically to David Sands, a director at Alberta’s Public Affairs Bureau, whose Twitter account is made up largely of rebuttals to journalism critical of Alberta government. In recent tweets, Sands compared two newspapers’ coverage of Parliament to “jihad,” among other critical responses.

“Yeah, I’m the mean guy,” Sands told ThinkProgress. “It’s definitely my personal style, but nobody told me to be mean.”

Sands said part of his job is tracking down stories that include inaccuracies about Alberta government policies. He said he’s the only one in his department with the specific mandate to do so.

Still, many have criticized Alberta for the number of people they’ve employed to hunt down stories. According to documentsobtained by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation in April, Alberta employs 214 communications professionals at a cost of $21 million per year, a number that the National Post noted “far outstrips” the number of reporters who cover government.

Sands rebutted that story too, saying communications staff span a range of departments — healthcare, education, law enforcement — that are not all dedicated to attacking journalists.

“It’s sort of an enjoyment of the media to say we have 214 communications people who are all dealing with the media,” he said. “When reporting is challenged, people take it very personally.”

The Strategy Is Working — Or Is It?

Thus far, government push-back against environmental journalism seems to be working. As a recent survey of Canadian journalists showed, many environmental and climate stories about the tar sands often go unreported. That survey, titled “The Alberta Oil Sands, Journalists, and Their Sources,” questioned 20 reporters with extensive daily experience reporting on the tar sands.

Of the 20, 14 said stories about the tar sands were not being told, and seven of those 14 said environmental issues were the main ones untouched. Environmental damage done by leaking tailings ponds and bitumen waste; toxic contaminants leeching into the water; the impact of excess sulfur produced in the mining process — all of those were included in the issues journalists perceive as under-reported.

“I hate this story,” one reporter who participated in the study said. “It’s important, but there’s no direction or progression.”

As for activist groups, Ben West of ForestEthics said the hostility has actually been helping his group’s efforts. And it’s not just the group itself. As the government’s attacks have become more and more public, West says his and other environmental advocacy groups have been obtaining record-breaking donations from individuals — what he calls a “clear sign” that Canadians want to protect their environment from the tar sands.

“I actually kind of welcome these attacks from the federal government in a sense, because they are a great opportunity to highlight how crazy our government’s acting, and use it as a reason to ask people for more support,” he said. “Many Canadians feel strongly about this. Let the government create their own disincentives.”

Link: Age of Ignorance