In our own backyard (001)

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There’s a lot going on in the country. But today’s post is about Massachusetts, particularly the SouthCoast. A lot’s happening right in our own backyard.

The Massachusetts Communities Action Network is trying to get co-sponsors for the Safe Communities Act, consisting of MA SD.1596 and HD.3052 (same text), which would keep our tax dollars from being used against immigrant friends and neighbors. Last week I fumbled my way through a call with my state representatives, but MCAN has a great script and AFSC can track our support.

Even closer to home, State Rep. Antonio Cabral (New Bedford) has sponsored two bills: Massachusetts HD.3413, “An Act relative to enforcing Federal law,” which prohibits the use of state funds for enforcing (federal) ICE programs, and which opens up compliance efforts to public scrutiny; and Massachusetts HD.3417, “An Act limiting the use of prison labor,” which keeps Massachusetts prisoners from being exploited out of state — for example by Sheriff Tom Hodgson, who has promised to put slave labor to work on Donald Trump’s Mexican wall. When calling about the Safe Communities Act, please mention Rep. Cabral’s bills. You will find your state representatives and senators at https://malegislature.gov/Search/FindMyLegislator.

Party meetings for New Bedford and Dartmouth Democrats, as well as for SouthCoast Green-Rainbow members, are on my local political calendar. It’s nothing you can’t find on about 50 different Facebook events pages, but there you’ll find it in one place. And these meetings are coming up soon!

Arnold R. Isaacs, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, shares some observations concerning the crisis caused by Trump’s “Muslim” travel ban, which affected two professors at UMASS Dartmouth. Neighbor G.J. Price, a friend of Isaacs, published these notes couple of days ago on his own blog and they are worth your time. But bottom line: Trump is a everything that ISIS hoped he would be.

Important observations on the Trump regime’s travel ban

Dear friends —

A three-part message…

(1) I am not very comfortable tooting my own horn, but given current headlines it seems appropriate to call your attention to a long report I wrote a couple of years ago that touches on both Muslim American and refugee issues. From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in post-9/11 America is available online at www.fromtroubledlands.net. Two chapters have particular relevance to the present uproar over President Trump’s immigration order: chapter II, “The 9/11 Aftermath” and chapter V, “A Clash of Civilizations?” Another looks at aspects of the refugee experience — chapter IV, “Afghan Americans: the Heritage of Trauma.”

(2) Editorial comment: With this policy Trump has given a huge gift to the Islamic State and other extremist fanatics. He validates their message that the United States and its people are at war with the Muslim world and Muslims need to defend themselves with violence. We will never be able to quantify exactly how many more fighters they will enlist as a direct result of Trump’s action, but there is no possible doubt that it will help their recruiting. Nor will we be able to count how many fewer Muslims will join the anti-extremist side, but the number will certainly be lower than it would have been without this disaster. The number of Muslims in America who will trust and cooperate with law enforcement and other public agencies to help find and head off possible violent radicals will be lower, too. Trump’s order will not make us safer; it makes us significantly less safe.

I can’t prove this either but I would make a substantial bet that the immense majority of our own counter-terror professionals and those we work with overseas understand that Trump has just made their job a lot tougher, completely unnecessarily. Americans need to oppose his order as strongly and publicly as possible not just for the sake of very important values but for our safety as well. And the Americans who have the most responsibility for that are the Republicans who control Congress, who if they have any moral integrity and any grip on reality will take immediate, decisive steps to reverse this policy and begin repairing the damage it has done.

(3) Lastly, a few random facts:

  • The overwhelming number of violent terrorist acts inside the United States after 9/11 were committed by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. A disproportionate number of Muslim terrorists have been native Americans who converted to Islam, not immigrants. The risk from refugees is practically zero; a dozen or fewer cases involving people with refugee status, out of more than three-quarters of a million refugees admitted since 2001. And from everything I know, not all those cases necessarily represent the scenario that anti-refugee rhetoric promotes: a violent act committed by someone who slipped through the refugee screening process. As I understand, they include some who did not do anything violent but contributed funds to supposed terror organizations overseas, and some who came as children with refugee families. The number of cases that actually fit the anti-refugee script is probably no more than three or four.
  • A look back at the wave of sweeping, repressive counter-terror programs that were put into practice after 9/11 shows that they were completely ineffective at finding terrorists. NSEERS, the post-9/11 registration program, did not lead to a single terrorism prosecution. Neither did the years of extensive surveillance by the New York Police Department in mosques and Muslim neighborhoods. (More about these in my Troubled Lands paper.) The approach that Trump and his pal Stephen Bannon and others around him apparently have in mind — and have put into practice with this astonishing order — isn’t just questionable as a matter of logic. It’s been tried and proven ineffective.
  • I won’t make the case here but will add that the Islamophobia network was producing fake news years before that term came into use. Its “evidence” on things like the Muslim Brotherhood “stealth jihad” plan, the unindicted co-conspirator story about the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the plot to impose sharia law is all provably false — not just disputed, but conclusively disproven. Stephen Bannon, by the way, has been a big cheerleader for that crowd (Frank Gaffney, Pamela Geller, et al) and I would bet is a channel for their views to reach the White House — which is REALLY bad news. No idea if they had anything to do with this immigration order, but it seems entirely possible.

OK, I’ll stop. But I hope you’ll pass this along anywhere it might contribute to the discussion and that you’ll find some way to support opposition to Trump’s disastrous order.

Thanks for your patience and best regards

Skip Isaacs

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The Long Game

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We’ve had some big shocks lately, and people are spending a lot of time in a reactive mode — signing petitions, making phone calls, and attending rallies. As it should be. But the long game is to strengthen and democratize the Democratic Party and the progressive ecosystems in and around it.

But here in Massachusetts democracy is in big trouble. The state ranks last in competitiveness in political races, and in many districts Republicans and Democrats don’t even bother to field candidates. As an example, “Mexican Wall Slave Labor” sheriff Tom Hodgson ran unchallenged in Bristol County. In the 2016 Democratic Primary the party fielded uncontested candidates for U.S. Congress in all nine districts: there was not one challenger. Hand-picked candidates don’t give voters anything to really vote for.

And state government is almost as bad. Half the candidates for the Governor’s Council ran unchallenged. In County Sheriff Democratic primary elections, six out of fourteen ran unopposed and two slots were never filled. In almost half the state legislature primaries and in 29 out of 42 state senate races there was no challenger.

Democrats

The Democratic Party seems to run on auto-pilot in many towns, and very few people know who the pilot is.

Picking my own town as an example, the Dartmouth Democratic Town Committee is not listed with the state Democratic Party. It is not in their town and ward database, and the two massdems.org staffers I called and emailed were unable to tell me if such a committee even existed. Another Bernie guy, Warren Lynch, ready to jump into Democratic politics, couldn’t find his local committee on massdems.org either, so he put together his own directory. While anecdotal, this example illustrates a common complaint — that superdelegates and lack of competitiveness are the least of the Democratic Party’s problems. Participation in the party at a local level is hampered by disorganization and even secretiveness. By the way, I eventually found the Dartmouth Town Commitee in Lynch’s directory.

Independents and Third Parties

Those registered as Independents miss a chance to influence a political party — any party. No one knows what goes on in the sanctity of the voting booth, so you are free to vote for whomever you like on election day — even the other guys. But the other 364 days of the year — wield some influence! In Massachusetts you can re-register with one of several parties using a register-by-mail form. If you belong to a third party (Greens, Libertarians, United Independents, etc.) check the registration form. The state of Massachusetts seems to add and drop third parties. See this and this for illustrations. I assume there is some method to the madness, but it makes belonging to a third party even more difficult than it already is.

Progressives

Following Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Clinton, and Trump — and taking their cue from the Tea Party — progressive Democrats, Greens, and Independents are about to start challenging uncontested candidates, “primarying” those who behave like Republicans, and offering slates of progressive candidates. In California, progressives recently took control of the state Democratic Party.

Our Revolution was founded by Bernie Sanders and its members are largely Democrats, Greens, Democratic Socialists, and members of progressive alliances. One of Our Revolution’s projects is trying to transform the Democratic Party by compiling a database of party chairs, contacts, and bylaws from local party organizations and encouraging Democrats to re-democratize and re-energize the party. Go to the bottom of this page and join. When the research is complete in every state, you will be able to type in your address and get a listing that shows you the when, what, where, why, and whos of your local party organization.

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If you are interested in helping Our Revolution with this research — or simply want to see what these young-ish progressives are up to, sign up to join Our Revolution’s orlocalorganizing team and then install Slack on your desktop and/or mobile devices. The discussions and resources will tell you a lot about the kind of activists signing up. Their #general and #random channels are for general discussion. The #research channel is for those contributing party documents and contacts. Each state and territory has its own channel. The #massachusetts channel was created by O.R. and the #se_massachusetts channel was created by a local organization in Fall River:

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Political Alliances

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The fragmented state of the Left has become a bitter joke in American politics. Right off the top of my head — we have the True-Blue Democrats, the Blue-Dog Democrats, Progressive Democrats of America, Democracy for America, the Green Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternatives, Working Family, and even the Pirate Party. There are likewise a ton of PACs and think tanks devoted to the disparate threads of liberalism, centrism, neoliberalism, progressivism, and socialism. To Republicans, of course, we are all simply “The Left.”

Especially in light of recent events, we might be much more effective if we were a more cohesive “Left.” But we have one donkey-shaped hole into which everyone is supposed to jam all the odd shaped pegs. And we don’t have a parliamentary democracy to make coalitions like this work.

But progressives, at least, can forge cross-party alliances anyway.

In Richmond, California, a refinery town north of San Francisco, two progressive candidates for City Council went up against the Democratic Party establishment as well as a $3 million slush fund set up for Democrats by the Chevron Corporation. And the progressives won.

Both Melvin Willis and Ben Choi were fielded by an independent progressive political organization called the Richmond Progressive Alliance, originally founded by Greens. In addition, both received support from Our Revolution, a party-agnostic progressive organization Bernie Sanders created after the election.

In Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, former labor organizer and author Steve Early writes about Richmond, its Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin (still active today as a councilwoman), and the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which unites progressive Democrats, Greens, and independents. Given RPA’s support from Our Revolution, it is not a surprise to find a forward by Bernie Sanders in Early’s book.

Next door, in Rhode Island, Democrat Marcia Ranglin-Vassell ran against RI House Majority Leader John DeSimone for State Representative in her party’s primaries — and she won by seventeen votes. Ranglin-Vassell snagged endorsements from both Rhode Island Progressive Democrats and Working Families, which also endorsed Bernie Sanders. Our Revolution supported Ranglin-Vassell against Roland Lavallee in the general election, which she won.

Although the Democratic Party often describes itself as a big tent, loyalty rules preclude endorsing progressive candidates outside the Big Blue tent. And it’s not yet clear the DNC will ever be a home for progressives. But in alliances — like Our Revolution, the Richmond Progressive Alliance and Working Families — progressives can join together to field candidates whose job #1 is to help everyday people.

It’s an idea progressives should be exploring right here in our little corner of Massachusetts.

Disaster Movie

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Following his inauguration – or, as Trump refers to it, the Day of National Patriotic Devotion – this week has been the unmitigated disaster many people predicted. Besides the Dear Leader’s autocratic decrees, lying to the White House press corps, his swamp-soaked cabinet picks, and his plans to seal the borders to our own Hermit Kingdom, now even some Republicans are concerned about Trump’s mental stability. It’s like something out of a Grade B disaster movie.

Only it’s real.

So If you feel you have to do something — start making calls to your elected officials. A new website called “The 65” (thesixtyfive.org) helps anyone overwhelmed by choice. The “65” refers to the sixty-five million of us who didn’t vote for this mess.

TheSixtyFive.org has a call script for each issue, and it helps you find the phone numbers for elected officials. The 65’s list of issues focuses on fighting the administration’s new iniatives and the Weekly Call to Action highlights one that’s especially time-critical. This week it’s stopping Betsy DeVos’s cabinet appointment.

If you receive email or Facebook requests to sign petitions, make a call instead. You can find your elected officials at the USA.gov website, and if you live in Massachusetts you’ll find your state senators and representatives at malegislature.gov. To spare yourself a bit of typing, you can download contacts in vCard format for all Federal and Massachusetts legislators (most email clients and Gmail use vCard). That way you’ll always have them on speed dial.

And pay attention to protecting your 10th Amendment (state) rights. If you live in Massachusetts, the Fundamental Freedoms Act and the Electronic Privacy Act both need sponsors to keep us safe(r) from the Trump administration. Call your Massachusetts legislator and do your best to mumble something like this:

Hi, my name is [NAME], and I live in [CITY]. I’m calling to ask my legislator to co-sponsor two important bills that are priority issues for me: the Fundamental Freedoms Act (HD1156/SD992), and the Electronic Privacy Act (HD2870/SD1175). Would [OFFICIAL] be willing to be a co-sponsor on either of these bills?

I just called my representatives and one called back in person, which I very much appreciate. I’m sure in a few weeks my mumbling will be greatly improved.

Start making those calls

petition

You get these things all the time – petitions from moveon.org, credo action, change.org, your political, professional and civic organizations, the list goes on.

Safe in your chair, coffee mug in hand, you add your name, zipcode and email address, and – clickyou’ve made a difference.

Or have you?

Each time I send one of those things out into the great beyond, I do wonder a bit – do online petitions ever accomplish anything?

Maybe not as much as I’d like.

Both the White House and British Parliament offer citizens e-petition sites, and both are basically trash chutes into which voters throw their political engagement and minutes of their life.

The Atlantic Monthly calls the White House site a joke, while the Guardian (UK) calls the British version a farce.

Evgeny Mozorov, an American social networking skeptic, calls it Slacktivism:

‘Slacktivism’ is the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation: why bother with sit-ins and the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture if one can be as loud campaigning in the virtual space? Given the media’s fixation on all things digital — from blogging to social networking to Twitter — every click of your mouse is almost guaranteed to receive immediate media attention, as long as it’s geared towards the noble causes. That media attention doesn’t always translate into campaign effectiveness is only of secondary importance.

One pundit explains why online petitions are not very effective:

No. The reason is that on the internet no one knows if you’re a dog. So legislators, executives, or administrators who are being lobbied by these petitions don’t know if you are a registered voter in their district, or even if you are an American citizen. They don’t know if you are signing multiple times or if you are signing for other people. They don’t know if you’re a robot, a person, or an alien.

Making the rounds this week was a reminder that in-person meetings and phone calls are much more effective in reaching politicians. The advice, from a former Congressional staffer, flatly rejects petitions:

You should NOT be bothering with online petitions or emailing.

Engaging with politicians is also a hot topic in the Indivisible Guide. And even more effective than having to persuade out-of-touch politicians to do the right thing is to vote for those who actually reflect your values.

We all want to do the right thing, and it’s hard to turn down a friend’s request. There are also cases where petitions have made a difference. Recently I added my name to the whitehouse.gov petition calling for Trump to disclose his tax returns – simply because he said nobody cares. It may have been a futile act politically, but the mounting signatures prove him wrong.

Let your judgment be your guide. But start making those calls.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

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When Donald Trump began mixing right-wing populism with the demonization of Mexicans, Muslims, and – well, just about everybody – it brought to mind an old, reptilian strain of fascism and it revived sales of Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here.” Lewis’ book shows us that fascism damn well can happen here. And, yes, that photo above is of an all-too real Nazi rally in Madison Square garden in 1939.

People have been dreading this week, and for good reason.

When the New York Times reviewed Volker Ullrich’s book “Ascent,” it was obvious that the review was not merely about Hitler’s ascent to power but about someone closer to home. Now, with real neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the White House, no one can say “It Can’t Happen Here” was just a piece of fiction.

It’s happened already.

A while ago the New Yorker ran a cartoon with an amusing caption: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, while those who do study history are doomed to stand around helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”

So recently I’ve been re-reading Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Arendt begins with the rise of antisemitism and moves on to nationalism, then to how citizens are isolated, the weak are stripped of their humanity, the average guy loses his remaining power by being subsumed into a mob, and how myth and lies become the dominant narrative. The world of “fake news” articles in Facebook streams or denying science is hardly a new one. And the complete and blitzschnell capitulation by the Republican establishment is shocking, but one that Arendt would have predicted.

Totalitarianism depends on desperation and the suspension of critical thinking – in other words, a society gone mad. Arendt writes:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Last year Republicans managed to turn serious social and economic woes afflicting all Americans into End Times for a very specific constituency. During the presidential conventions last summer, for Democrats the glass was half full – and could topped off at leisure. Yes, they said, there were problems, but the nation had made progress and we were going to make even more. But for Republicans, the glass was totally empty. And shattered. And there were shards of glass in dead babies. White, Christian babies. And Democrats were gunning for the fathers.

By studying the rise of Nazism, Arendt figured out the importance of lies, doubt, insecurity and self-delusion. Her insights still hold today.

So when Trump and his Breitbart buddies make up their own “facts,” declare war on the “lying [mainstream] press” (some of them even use the Nazi word “Lügenpresse”):

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”

And when Trump speaks to white crowds and promises to make “America great again,” whitewashing national crimes, institutional racism and promoting American Exceptionalism and Christian White identity:

“The antisemites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.”

And when Trump promises: “I’m going to fix everything. Trust me.”

“The point is that both Hitler and Stalin held out promises of stability in order to hide their intention of creating a state of permanent instability.”

We can feel the instability beginning this week as Trump begins dismantling all the agencies that protect citizens.

* * *

And, as if he had somehow been reading Arendt himself – perhaps as a cookbook – this week the new president, his press secretary, and his apologists went to war with the press and with facts. Trump ordered media blackouts on a number of federal agencies.

Last year’s election season, with the emergence of an authoritarian candidate, got at least a couple of scholars wondering how a coup might unfold in the United States. Taziz Huq and Tom Ginzburg of the University of Chicago Law School, write:

Is the United States at risk of democratic backsliding? And would the Constitution prevent such decay? To many, the 2016 election campaign may be the immediate catalyst for these questions. But it is structural changes to the socio-economic environment and geopolitical shifts that make the question a truly pressing one. […] By drawing on comparative law and politics experience, we demonstrate that there are two modal paths of democratic decay, which we call authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. A reversion is a rapid and near-complete collapse of democratic institutions. Retrogression is a more subtle, incremental erosion that happens simultaneously to three institutional predicates of democracy: competitive elections; rights of political speech and association; and the administrative and adjudicative rule of law. Over the past quarter century, we show that the risk of reversion has declined, while the risk of retrogression has spiked. The United States is not exceptional. We evaluate the danger of retrogression as clear and present, whereas we think reversion is much less likely. We further demonstrate that the constitutional safeguards against retrogression are weak. The near-term prospects of constitutional liberal democracy hence depend less on our institutions than on the qualities of political leadership and popular resistance.

We’re at risk. We’re not immune. And our now-gutted Constitution can’t help us. But while a coup may not be in the immediate future, Ginsburg says:

"We’re at this moment where it’s very good to be considering these things.

Indeed it is.

The Trump presidency

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Welcome to the Trump presidency.

In most democracies, leaders are elected by popular vote, not some crazy slave era concoction like the Electoral College. And in most parliamentary democracies citizens don’t have to suffer incompetence and corruption without relief. In most democracies there is a provision to hold new elections on a vote of no-confidence. But in the United States we either wait four years to throw the bum out – or we can try to impeach him. There is already a campaign underway to get rid of a president who started his term in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution:

“… no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

Although conservatives wave away the word “emolument” as vague, it appears in Samuel Johnson’s 1775 dictionary, and still means today what it meant back then: profit; advantage. Constitutional lawyers, including Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout and others from the Brookings Institution, argue that Trump cannot continue profiting from his international “deals,” especially when he is the only president in American history to refuse to divest himself of conflicts-of-interest.

The Trump cabinet, while not yet rubber-stamped by the Republican Congress, is shaping up to be a weird assortment of billionaires, generals, scammers, ideologues, and incompetents. God help us when Rick Perry assumes control of the Dept. of Energy’s nukes. Or when Ben Carson puts up the photo of himself and Jesus in his new HUD office. Before settling down to a nap. Or when Betsy deVos becomes the homeschooling czarina. Or when Jeff Sessions dismantles programs to reign in police violence against black lives.

You think Ferguson was bad…

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While Bill Clinton was actually impeached for consentual sex with a White House intern, Republicans seem less inclined to hold Trump to the same standard – or any standard at all. Trump’s ex-wife’s divorce deposition included charges that he raped her and there is a very long list of victims of his sexual abuse, including Summer Zervos, who is suing Trump for defamation. This particular case could bring evidence, including videos, to light.

A serial misogynist and abuser and his incompetent cabinet.

Thus, it was appropriate that millions of women marched in hundreds of American cities. By one count as many as 4.6 million women in 600 cities protested the crotch-grabber-in-chief:

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Pictures of the march were truly impressive. Washington DC was awash in pink. If you click on this link you can see the crowd from a drone-eye view:

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People from the SouthCoast (MA) also took part in local rallies.

And even before Trump’s inauguration, local demonstrators from the Coalition for Social Justice, the ACLU, and various unions and church groups were protesting Sheriff Thomas Hodgson’s publicity-stunted proposal to use prisoners for slave labor to build Trump’s Mexican wall. A photo from Ash Street:

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* * *

In today’s local paper Robert Xifaras wrote that, in his 87 years, he has never seen so many “‘shameless deplorable unpatriotic divisive malcontents’ who have entered into a conspiracy not only to attack the legitimacy of the election, but to further espouse […] hatred.” Show some respect for the office!

Mr. Xifaras has apparently only recently started following the news since he obviously missed the Birtherism and racism that Trump had a major hand in spreading.

Well, Republicans, have fun being in charge.

For now.