The Battle for al-Hudaydah Captures Yemen’s Imploding Tragedy

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The conflict in question is where all the buttons are bunched up. Image from yemen.liveuamap.com/

(Note: using transliteration used in the Times and elsewhere, though not really for any good reason)

Yesterday, after weeks of frantic negotiations and an increasing sense of dread, the coalition of the exiled San’a government and the remnants of the GCC launched an assault on the Houthi-led port city of al-Hudaydah, a city of 600,000 caught in the vise of the world’s most catastrophic human rights tragedy.

There is little doubt that this will be a brutal slog. The coalition is led ostensibly by Tariq Saleh, nephew of the late ex-President and an erstwhile ally of the Houthis (as in: until December). That he is now leading a city-ruining assault against those with which he so recently broke bread is not surprising. It fits in the long history of Yemeni politics and war in the immediate context of this conflict, which started when the Houthis tried to overthrow his uncle.

Of course, few really think that Tariq is calling all the shots. While he has led several thousand of his fighters up the coast, it is the UAE that demanded the Houthi’s leave the city, an ultimatum which went whooshing by at midnight, followed by the sounds of heavy guns and bombing runs.

So why is this city so important? Al-Jazeera captures the contradictions.

The Hudaida port is crucial for the flow of food supplies into a country that is on the brink of famine.

But Riyadh and Abu Dhabi maintain that the port is being used to smuggle weapons.

Both can be true, and almost certainly are (certainly the first one is, and few doubt the latter). And that’s really the problem. The battle for the city could wreck even the meagerest supplies that are preventing famine, but famine and disease are hardly being prevented whatsoever already.  Hudaydah is the primary port in the north; under the Houthis it remains one of Yemen’s poorest and most hungry provinces.

Expelling the Houthis will be a catastrophe, but their occupation of the province (and most of Yemen) has been catastrophic. While we focus on the US involvement and our complicity in Saudi and Emirati war crimes, we ignore that the Houthis are brutal and vicious, running and increasing gangster/theocrat rule, with lawless violence being a hallmark.

Indeed, reports from trusted reporters seem to show that there is ambiguity in Hudaydah about the coming conflict.

This negotiated plan is what had been offered in the past, but the Houthis declined. At this point, there seem to be few good options for success. Writing in the NYTimes, Gregory Johnsen says that right now, the only real option is a half-measure de-escalation.

Mr. Griffiths (UN Special Envoy) has put together a framework for peace negotiations, which was leaked to the press last week. A key component of that framework is disarmament, which would require the Houthis to surrender all their weapons, including ballistic missiles and artillery, except for light arms. But in an environment of such profound distrust, where weapons are equated with power, no one side will voluntarily surrender them.

Instead, Mr. Griffiths should push for transitional arms control. Unlike disarmament, which is an all-or-nothing affair, transitional arms control is gradual and allows for the slow building of trust by getting the warring parties to step back from the brink while maintaining control of their weapons should they feel threatened.

In exchange for getting Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to stop airstrikes, the Houthis would commit to placing their weapons under lock and key. Under such a scenario, the Saudis and Emiratis would still have access to their planes and the Houthis would keep the keys to their weapons depot.

That’s pretty much where we’re at. A hated occupier is being slowly forced out in a humanitarian nightmare by the parties that are absolutely complicit in the broader humanitarian nightmare, led by a former ally of the first group. The only chance to get people to stop killing each other is to convince them they will still be able to kill each other at a moment’s notice if things don’t work out.

I say the Houthis are an occupier because they are: the soldiers they use are from northern cities with no connection real connection to Hudaydah, and in the context of Yemeni politics, that makes it an occupation. It doesn’t matter that they control San’a. They are not “foreign”, but certainly don’t belong. They came out of their province and ran roughshod over the local population, the same way that Saleh did to both Sadah and Southern Yemen.

This is Yemen at the moment. A swirl of shifting, uncertain allegiances, a whole swath of the country controlled by an increasingly blood-thirsty and malevolent/incompetent occupying army, and being fought by a coalition that has zero concern for the local population, and is essentially their own occupying force.

The battle is just starting. The war is grinding on with no end in site. The humanitarian crisis is already unimaginable and will get worse. And the question of what Yemen is, or what it should be, or what the sides are actually fighting for, will continue to be murky and unanswered even as the smoke wafts away from ruined cities and the dead are wailingly buried in the ground.

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“I Know A Lot About Airplanes”: The Mostly Pointless Abandonment of South Korea

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Donald Trump is objectively the much better person here. Weird, right? 

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on North Korea, or East Asia at all. You’ve already seen a lot of pop-up experts the last few days, and will see a lot more today. (“What matters to Kim most of all is regime stability, Wolf.”)

I also certainly don’t want to pretend that what happened overnight was worse or comparable to nuclear war. It was much better! If I had to choose between a preening Donald Trump and the melting annihilation of human life, I’d choose the former, at least seven or eight times out of ten.

But let’s also not pretend that yesterday was anything more than preening. I can’t say for certain that this was a huge victory for Kim, or that the optics of him meeting with a world leader solidifed his standing in his country or around the world. That Donald Trump basically abdicated America’s historic alliances over the weekend undercuts that a bit, though I suppose Kim might be able to convince the North Korean media to portray it as a historic victory.

(Though to be honest, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. From what I understand, the North Korean propaganda machine portrays America as weak and decadent and crumbling, so why is meeting with its leader a victory? I know that contradiction is the heart of totalitarianism, but I’m still curious about how that circle is squared.)

This summit was optics, which is not nothing in international relations, but is also far from everything. You knew it was going to be optics when they announced that Trump was leaving a little early and that he only had 45 minutes of one-and-one scheduled. You knew it was optics when the Department of Energy wasn’t included in the summit. You knew it was optics, honestly, the second Trump got involved.

This isn’t how summits work. They don’t begin with the President off-handedly announcing he wants to meet. There is months and years of prep work, negotiations and agreements, painful discussions about language as both sides test and push limits. Then the leaders get together and wrangle over the end.

In a way, I get why Trump’s approach is appealing. He’ll cut through all that bluster and just get the job done because he’s a master negotiator. He’ll size Kim up within a minute and figure it out. That’s a fun thought! If you like Donald Trump, that sounds cool.

The problem is that Trump the actual human being has little to nothing in common with Trump the Image. He’s not a good negotiator, is wildly susceptible to flattery, and goes into talks with nothing more than half-baked notions he gets from half-watching Fox and Friends. None of this is an exaggeration. When he said he’s been preparing for these talks his whole life, he just means that he likes haggling with people. It also means he literally hasn’t been preparing at all.

He knew what he wanted out of this. He wanted Kim to say denuclearization, and as soon as he got that, he was gold. He could talk about Kim being a great and wonderful guy who “really loves his country.” And he got that. Throughout his press conference, which by Trump standards was relatively lucid, he talked about how this time Kim’s promise meant something because he “wants to get stuff done.”

Again though, I’m skeptical, because nothing in the signed documents indicates any different pressures or timetables than any other accord ever signed, or even North Korea’s official position (which is they truly and sincerely and why won’t you believe us don’t want nukes, but dream first of a nuke-free world, so you go first). Instead, Trump got a vague pledge and a can kicked down the road.

As Trump kept saying, though, this was just the beginning. But I don’t know. This is his chance to say something went great and then ignore it, and if Kim doesn’t follow through, shrug his shoulders and say he tried. It’s hard to take Trump’s pledges of follow-through seriously. All he does is promise something will happen down the road in order to claim victory, and then do it all again down the road.

He also got Kim to agree to return the remains of American POWs, which is certainly a good thing, but that’s also the kind of good-faith gesture that should be the prerequisite of any meeting.

And what did we give up? Well, for one thing, Trump continuously reiterated his desire to bring home all our troops from South Korea, which is, I guess, fine, except for two points. 1) Saying you really want to do something super badly is not exactly a common tool for a great negotiator, and 2) doing so just because Kim promises to denuclearize still leaves South Korea entirely vulnerable to NK’s conventional forces. Even before the regime went nuclear, the fear was that any conflict could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people n Seoul just from artillery strikes alone.

Indeed, I think the big outcome of these talks was that Trump agreed to stop us military exercises with South Korea. Here’s the full transcript of that.

We have done exercises working with South Korea for a long time. We call them war games. I call them war games. They are tremendously expensive. The amount of money we spend on that is incredible. South Korea contributes, but not 100 percent which is a subject that we have to talk to them about also. That has to do with the military expense and also the trade. We actually have a new deal with South Korea. We have to talk to them. We have to talk to countries about treating us fairly. We pay for a big majority of them.

We fly in bombers from Guam. I said where do the bombers come from? Guam. Nearby. I said great. Where is nearby. Six and a half hours. That’s a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and drop bombs all over the place and go back to Guam. I know a lot about airplanes. Very expensive. I didn’t like it.

What I did say is and I think it is provocative. I have to tell you, Jennifer, it is a provocative situation. When I see that and you have a country right next door. Under the circumstances we are negotiating a comprehensive and complete deal. It is inappropriate to have war games. Number one, we save money. A lot. Number two, it is really something they very much appreciated.

I’m glad North Korea appreciated that! And I’m glad you gave us a deep dive into your tremendous knowledge about airplanes, to let us know that flying them is expensive. You know who wasn’t totally on-board with this plan? Our allies in South Korea, whose military didn’t know that you were canceling these. And neither did ours. 

US forces in Korea said they had not received updated guidance on military exercises.

“In coordination with our ROK [Republic of Korea] partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance,” a spokesperson told Reuters

The South Korean military issued a statement to NBC News saying: “Regarding President Trump’s comment regarding ending of the combined military drills … we need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point.”

This is classic Trump. He’s been all rankled and wrinkly about having to pay for joint military exercises, because all he sees is money and not value, and has no understanding about how these things work or why we do these exercises. So Kim can just say “these are really expensive” and “we’d appreciate it if you stopped” while whispering about nuclearization, and Trump gave up the store.

By “gave up the store” here I mean he sold out our allies. This is a disaster for South Korea, and I think people are just realizing that now. He values Kim’s smiles more than Moon’s security. And you know who else loves that Trump looked at the price tag (though not the value) of exercises in the region and gave them up? China. So this is a huge victory for China and North Korea, and a loss for South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. You might recognize that as a general inversion of American policy.

But that’s what he’s been doing. In the press conference, he is asked about the G7, and goes off on Trudeau for paragraphs at a time (calling him “Justin”), and doing a play-by-play of his own imagined version of events. So to recap, he spent the last few days severing alliances with our friends and strengthening our rivals, if not openly advancing the interests of geopolitical enemies.

That’s why this whole thing struck me as sort of a farce. Obviously, anything Trump is involved in is at least partly farce. That’s part of why I wonder how much of a triumph this is for Kim: there was hardly more dignity in yesterday’s meeting than in his palling around with Rodman. Trump might have been elevated, but he’s still a tacky casino operator and reality show star.

But what really struck me as false and horrible was when a CNN anchor said that it was a victory for Kim to be “meeting with the leader of the free world.” When that leader openly sides with Russia and China over Canada and Germany and the UK, when that leader officially closes our doors to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence, when that leader tweets out praise for the Supreme Court allowing voter rolls to be purged, then he’s not the leader of the free world. He’s just a member of a much darker and crueler world. Maybe that’s why they got along so well.

 

The Ilisu Dam: Turkey, Iraq, and the Future of the Tigris

 

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Damn. Image from Global Water Blog

We interrupt the Daily Regreatening to bring news from Southeast Turkey, where the great rivers of yore are no longer yoked to nature

Turkey said Tuesday that Iraqis have nothing to fear from the filling of an upstream reservoir on the Tigris River, saying “sufficient quantities of water” would continue to flow to the neighboring country.

For decades now, in one of the slow-moving but earth-changing stories of our time, Turkey has been reinventing its power supply by building a series of dams and reservoirs along the ancient Tigris and Euphrates rivers, along which the first major civilizations in human history were watered and grown. This has made Iraq and Syria less than thrilled, needless to say.

The final dam, the Ilisu, has slowly started filling, after years of construction interrupted by local protests, international disputes, and Kurdish militancy (the three are not entirely unrelated). The reservoir won’t be completely filled for at least a year, but it is expected to drop the water level in the Tigris by 8 billion cubic meters, leaving it at 17 billion cubic meters.

I don’t know if that is enough (like, I literally have no idea). Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources says it will be fine, but then, I guess, he says a lot of things.

He said Iraq and Turkey reached a “fair” agreement whereby Turkey will release 75 percent of the river’s volume while keeping the rest to fill the dam over the next six months. He said the two sides are set to meet again on Nov. 1. However, when asked about it at the press conference, the Turkish ambassador denied any agreement had been reached.

That’s kind of awkward, and telling as well. Why would Turkey reach an agreement? An agreement means that both sides have power, and if Turkey were to break it, they’d be in the wrong. Without an agreement though, Turkey holds all the cards.

None of this is to say that Turkey won’t release “a sufficient amount of water”, a coldly clinical phrase which carries with it a sort of reluctant and patronizing oblige. It’s not actually in their best interest to have Iraq turn into a waterless hellscape, a nation of 37 million wracked by drought and finally broken. Turkey doesn’t need another Yemen on its border.

But…I mean, things change, man. Even if Erdogan’s government is 100% sincere about releasing a sufficient amount of water–and why wouldn’t you trust him??–who’s to say what the future could bring? Conflict between the nations could easily lead to a withholding. Climate change could make Turkey reluctant to give up any of the water it is storing for itself. Maybe Turkey would want Iraq to turn the vise a little more on its Kurdish population. Who knows?

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It’s actually OK to make a Batman joke

No matter what, though, Turkey has already changed the water in the region through their projects. In a great interview with the UVA Darden Global Water Blog, Julia Harte of Reuters talks about what Turkey’s vast modernization projects have meant in the region.

Turkey’s hydroelectric dams have reportedly reduced water flow into Iraq and Syria by about 80 and 40 percent, respectively, since 1975. The Ilisu Dam is expected to open on December 31, 2017, but it will take several years for the 10.4 billion-cubic-meter reservoir to flood completely. When it has, Iraqi officials estimate it will reduce the downstream flow of the river by at least half, allowing more salty water to flood into the river from the Persian Gulf in southern Iraq.

Together with a severe drought that has afflicted the region for the past decade, this decline in the quantity and quality of Tigris River water is expected to strangle Iraqi agriculture and hobble the recovery of the Mesopotamian Marshes, vast wetlands in southern Iraq where Sumerian civilization began. The Arabs who live in the marshes were seen as security threats by Saddam Hussein, who accused them of sheltering Shi’ite rebels. He drained the marshes in the 1980s and 1990s by diverting the Tigris into a giant canal. Since the U.S. invasion, the marshes have been making a slow recovery, but the Ilisu Dam will place their survival in jeopardy once more, according to environmental scientists.

This has huge, regional-and-global changing impacts. Over the last 40 years, which is honestly nothing, the entire water ecosystem of three countries has entirely changed. It’s a vast experiment with real human lives at stake, and no one can really say how it will play out.

Dams and Damn Lies and Where Dams Lie

All of this gets to the insanity of national aspirations in a world built on geology. It’s maddening and impossible to think that a border that is drawn arbitrarily, based just on a war here or there or some dusty treaty or just because that’s where we decided, means that some people control the water, and some don’t. Water is real; borders are not. But if you are on one side of that border, if you are upstream, you make the decision.

The decision on what to do with water is true power politics, because it gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We all need water, and whoever controls the headwaters somehow gets to decide who is sated and who is thirsty.

We see this in North America, where the US has essentially cut off the flow of the Colorado River into Mexico. There are treaties to restore it, and technical experts have been working their best to stay away from the heated politics of the moment, and many (though not all) are working in good faith, but it essentially comes down to: we have the river, you can pound (and maybe eat) sand.

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Pictured: not a healthy delta

When you think of the history of the US and Mexico, and the stolen land, and the cheap and phony wars, and the racism and xenophobia that follows, and the idea that those sentiments and actions can control a river, you start to see the ridiculousness of it.

When you reflect on just how recent these activities were (about 170 years), and then think of how recent these enormous dams were built, and think about the endless power of the Colorado River, which over countless eons carved out the goddamn Grand Canyon, you see how absurd this whole thing is. Mexico and the United States? Eyeblinks. That border? Sand. The idea that one country “owns” the Colorado? Mind-boggling arrogance. An insult not just to nature, but to the very concept of time.

And dams, ultimately, remind us what time and human life really mean.

Le Deluge: The Past and The Future

One of the effects of a dam is that the reservoir built by the dam is, well, a reservoir, and therefore underwater. Anyone around there has to leave or drown. Towns get submerged, drowned in the depths. There’s something haunting and ghostly about the idea, full cities suddenly made into Atlantis, being eaten away by our attempts to control the very agents of their deliquesence.

But these are real lives that the slow flood will ruin. Harte estimates 25,000-30,000 people will be displaced, with one of the towns being a true gasping tragedy.

Hasankeyf is one of the towns along the Tigris that will be completely submerged by the Ilisu Dam. Unlike most of the other towns, however, Hasankeyf has been continuously inhabited for 12,000 years. From Neolithic settlements to medieval tombs and temples, the town is a living museum where some people alive today grew up in caves built into cliffs overlooking the Tigris. Archeologists are still discovering new artifacts in the town – the most recent Neolithic settlement was unearthed in September – and they estimate that most of Hasankeyf’s archeological sites will be flooded before they can be excavated.

But flooded they will be, and gone under will be that seemingly-endless chapter of human history, in which people lived thousands of years before we started to decide that civilization meant cities and borders and power.

That’s an inevitable side effect of dams, of course: the submergence of history. It happened when the Aswan High Dam flooded the site of the ancient and enormous Abu Simbel temples, forcing Egypt to pick them up and move them, block by block, away from the drowning waters.

It’s really the damnedest thing

It happens in the United States too. Many communities were drowned when the TVA filled the valleys, and the Glen Canyon Dam destroyed thousands of years of Native history and sacred sites under the waters of Lake Powell.

But flooding, when looked at this way, is inevitable. While changing the flow of a river demonstrates an awesome power, it also is a temporary and transient one. Those ancient sites are not so ancient. They only seem so because of our graspingly desperate misapprehension of Deep Time. The rivers will, ultimately, win.

The Ilisu will one day erode and burst. So will the Hoover and the Aswan. It’s not just that dams are faulty and sometimes, like with the Oroville, can’t handle the weather. It’s that they are impermanent. The Colorado carved out the Grand Canyon. It eroded mile-thick volcanic dams over a dozen times during the Pleistocene. It always wins.

No matter how responsible the government of Turkey is, it will one day fall. Human habituations will change. We might flee a region altogether, or disease may wipe out a huge chunk of the population. None of this may happen soon, but it will happen. That none of the megadams have burst yet doesn’t mean they won’t; it is just a reminder of how impossibly new an idea these actually are.

Humans will stop tending them, or lose the knowledge, or just leave altogether. It may be war, but most likely, it will just be time and its insistence. The water will start finding cracks, and will grow them a forceful laziness, and persistent path of least resistance. These towering structures, which need a word beyond Pharaonic, will weaken and crumble and burst, and the water will burst forth. Ancient cities onces submerged may be see in outlines, while existing cities, themselves now ancient, beaten and strangled by the floodtide.

And the rivers will run again, unconcerned. Looking downhill. Glimmering toward the shining sea.

 

 

 

Trump’s Dimwit Cruelty Is Key To Our Encroaching Authoritarianism

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Remember this guy? It’s less funny to me, now. 

Among certain citizen bloviators, myself among them, the idea that the modern GOP, embodied by Trump, is too stupid to pull off a genuine authoritarianism is a frequently-pulled-upon comfort blanket. The people in the White House are the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, led by a preening child who is terrified of genuine human thought. Maybe we’ll be lucky!

That idea is easy to understand when you see the actions of Paul Manafort, one of the few people tied to the campaign or the administration who is genuinely smart and a savvy operator. As we found out last night, he’s been acting…not super brightly.

Despite being under house arrest, with multiple ankle bracelets, and certainly under the watchful eye of the Special Counsel for conspiring to sell our election to Russia, he’s been contacting associates and asking them to lie about what happened. I’ll paraphrase the transcripts.

Hey, co-conspirator? Hey, it’s…Paul M. You know who- I’m on the news, and we did the Ukraine thing together. Anyway, I’m not really at liberty to talk, since I’m certainly being watched, but I’m really going to need you to lie about the collus…coolatta. (Wink!)(I mean the collusion). 

Smart as Manafort may be, he is also desperate and panicked. As Frank Foer put it in The Atlantic, he’s lost his cool 

Robert Mueller’s allegation that Manafort attempted to tamper with a witness permits us to peer inside Manafort’s mind, as it has functioned in a very different set of circumstances. When it comes to Manafort’s own deep problems, his moment of legal peril, he seems unable to muster strategic thinking. He has shown himself capable of profoundly dunderheaded miscalculations.

As Foer explains, Mueller knows everything. He’s got Rick Gates as a cooperating witness, and so he’s privy to all of Manafort’s dealings and contacts. He’s keeping tabs on everything. He know what’s up.

And that’s where our comfort has, at times, come in. That as Mueller gets closer, rolling up Manafort and maybe Kushner, Don Jr, etc, the rats will grow hungry and gnashingly desperate, terrified of every shadow. They’ll see the rest of their lives unspooling in a prison yard, and they’ll make more mistakes, turn on each other, blunder their way into confessions. God, I’m sweaty just thinking about it.

But then we remember that even when the powerful are idiots, they are, first and foremost, powerful.

This of course was briefly the story of the day when he tweeted it yesterday (yesterday? Jesus christ…). It’s hard to overstate what this means. He’s saying (with his lawyers, most notably Guiliani, confirming) that the President can pardon anyone, can stop any investigation into himself, and can do whatever he can to harass and discredit and law enforcement agency looking into his crimes. In other words: there are no laws to apply to him.

That’s dull and thuggish and not at all the work of a savvy player, but so what? If he’s willing to use the pardon simply to reward loyalty or protect himself, there are very few obstacles to stopping him. He doesn’t need to be smart. He just needs to be angry, and to not care at all about any norms or any decent behavior or anything beside his own impossibly fake tough-guy persona.

And as we see, this dim assumption of authority isn’t an obstacle to his success. Indeed, both pragmatically and emotionally, it is the source of his power.

Trump is the GOP

While his assertion of Presidential perogative is almost certainly untrue, and absolutely insane, and genuinely terrifying. it almost doesn’t matter. If the President pardons himself, I don’t think anyone knows what will happen. Even if the GOP decides to impeach him, would he even leave? What’s the mechanism for forcibly removing a President?

And let’s be clear: the GOP won’t impeach him.

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When this “own party” poll came out yesterday, it was solidified for many on the commentariat that the GOP was too scared to go against him for fear of losing the base. And that’s certainly true for some of them. Some of them may not like Trump, but they are willing to play ball to save their own skins.

But really, that’s mostly bullshit. Many of them like Trump because he is willing to do whatever the GOP wants, both for reasons of what passes for his ideology, and because his own pathologies, weaknesses, and vanities (which is to say: his sum total) perfectly align with GOP goals.

Sure, there are some variations, like his obsession with tariffs, but those are few and far between. There is a general policy alignment, but more than that, there is deep-seated cruelty and meanness of spirit, which is the animating principle of today’s GOP.

As an example, let’s look at Kris Kobach, last seen failing entirely to suppress the vote nationwide simply because he didn’t know the first thing about the law. This man, whose entire career has been based around the goal of not letting poor people or minorities vote (that’s no exaggeration), is now running for governor of Kansas. And he has a great idea for how to do that: being the world’s biggest asshole.

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At a parade

Yup…he’s riding around a parade with a big ol’ gun strapped to his jeep, because he’s a genuine tough guy who just accidentally never served. Needless to say, this upset some people, who were not thrilled about seeing a gun at a parade, on account of our citizens, especially students, are frequently massacred.

But Kobach was ready for that. He was ready to pounce that it was a FAKE GUN and that he was TRIGGERING THE SNOWFLAKES who HATE THE 2ND ADMENDMENT. I’m not kidding. As the KC Star explains in a fantastic, biting editorial:

Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach wants us to be very, very angry over his weekend parade appearance with a replica of a machine gun. That’s because he hopes Kansan Republicans will delight in that anger and revel in the idea that he’s triggering the “snowflakes.”

In a fundraising email on Monday, the Republican secretary of state bragged about the reaction to his appearance alongside what only looked like a big gun in Saturday’s Old Shawnee Days parade: “Within seconds of the parade being over, liberals started losing their minds … But the fact is, the only reason why these ‘tolerant’ left snowflakes get so upset over even the sight of me is because they know I will not back down in my defense of the Second Amendment.”

Kobach apparently does need it, though. His campaign couldn’t wait to put out a statement deriding “those who use the excuse of school violence to restrict the right to bear arms.”

There’s a hell of a lot going on here, starting with the language of the internet, in which Kobach, an ostensible grownup, reflects the only language that matters on the right: keyword incantations and barely-literate trollery.

(As for the gun being fake, he’s lucky he wasn’t a black man in a Wal-Mart or a 13-yr-old kid in a playground…)

Obviously, trolling was the only point of this. He wanted us to get upset over his replica gun, so that he could talk about how we’re…intolerant of guns. Think about it: he wanted us to be upset over making people think that a weapon of death was coming down their street so that he could sneer about “the excuse of school violence”, as if that’s not a hideous wailing national tragedy. As if it is something to poke fun at.

And that’s the point: the GOP has been taken over entirely by this wanton cruelty, by this delight and demeaning and belittling (while complaining the whole while that the Ivy League professors are snobby jerks). It’s been an inevitable product of 40+ years of policy, a spreading meanness that mutates into contempt for decency.

Trump’s Tacky Eagles Stunt Is Anything But Foolish

That’s why Trump isn’t an anomaly, but a culmination. It’s why the GOP isn’t going to impeach him or stop him. He enables their success by supporting voter suppression. His authoritarianism is what a minority party needs to stay in power. They are a far-right party aligned with far-right parties around the globe, and democracy is an afterthought, a nicety to be gestured at while the real work of plutocratic looting gets done.

Some, like the American Ambassador to Germany, have stopped pretending to be anything other than a part of a growing anti-democratic right-wing movement. And while we think Trump is different, because he’s dumber, that’s not the case. He doesn’t need to be smart. His small-fisted sense of patriotism is enough.

His statement disinviting the Eagles to the White House, simply because a  lot of them wouldn’t come, is proof-positive of that.

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Obviously, this is petty and stupid and foolish. For one thing, the Eagles players didn’t kneel during the anthem this season (despite what Fox News grossly pretended). What happened is that fewer than 10 players wanted to go (some reports have it at 3 or 4, probably depending on if you count Riley Cooper as 3 or 4 people), and so Trump cancelled it rather than have it reflect poorly on him.

But that wasn’t enough, of course. They didn’t want to come because they disagree with “their President” (and has any POTUS ever used a term so paternal and possessive?) about something that never happened, and so are essentially unpatriotic. It’s dishonest about the protests, dishonest about the reasons the Eagles weren’t coming, and dishonest about their motivations.

It’s wholly stupid and entirely false, a child’s idea of what patriotism is and a moron’s notion of revenge. It’s a jumble of brass bands and barely-mouthed incantations and symbols that the man calling for them doesn’t even understand. It’s an idiot’s path, designed entirely to rile up the base about angry blacks and ungrateful traitors and spoiled football players who hate the troops and the country by dint of disagreeing with the President.

If you think Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is too stupid to work, you’re wrong. If you think it is too cruel and punitive and obviously histrionic to take hold here, you’re wrong. You have a party that supports him because they revel in the onslaught of cruelties, they power of totems, the both fevered and dull recitation of buzzwords, and the slow stripping away of representative democracy.

They support Trump because of everything he is. We’re in extremely dangerous days, and the fact that they are so dumb and tacky and vulgar isn’t a cause for optimism: it’s a sign of the stompingly gray future to come.

 

NOTE: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO COME. This is an all-hands-on-deck election year. Don’t just vote, volunteer. Get involved. Democracy relies on everyday engagement.

Puerto Rico and the Lies That Kill: The Cost of Trumpism

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At the blog, we like to poke fun at our President from time to time, and point out that his language is “colorful” and “eccentric” and “the pure distilled sound of deranged dishonesty” and “a madman’s bark that is warping and distorting the institutions and assumptions on which democracy and a functioning society are based.” But there are times when the costs of his pathologies become even more clear.

There was a lot going on in this low, dumb, dishonest week, but this is what should matter most:

A new study in TheNew England Journal of Medicine, conducted in part by researchers at Harvard University, sheds new light on what’s really happened on the island. The team found that there were over 4,600 deaths potentially attributable to the hurricane, a 70-fold increase over official estimates. The survey also measured high rates of migration among people displaced by the storm and, after it passed, long periods where residents faced a loss of basic services.

I don’t really want to talk about how this got lost in Rosanne and Sam Bee and D’Szouza and all that. We know we have cracked priorities (I’m as guilty as anyone). But it is clear that these priorities, this inward gazing, redolent of self-obsessed decline, is part and parcel of why we didn’t care about Puerto Rico, and that this truth could go relatively (though obviously and thankfully not entirely) unmentioned, is tied up in Trump’s wild dishonesty.

Our disregard for Puerto Rico didn’t start with Trump, of course. It is a colonial legacy of a country that somehow doesn’t believe itself to be a colonizer (an assumption that can be disproven by: all of America). Most Americans probably didn’t know, or at least fully understand, that by dint of law and ties of culture, Puerto Ricans are Americans. That makes this the greatest natural disaster in modern American history, but of course, it wasn’t just natural.

This disaster was exacerbated by the administration’s flagrant disregard for non-white lives, and by Trump’s all-encompassing need to protect himself. These sicknesses met in how he talked about Puerto Rico, which again, is part of America. As I said then:

One of the more grotesque manifestations of Donald Trump’s attitude toward the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico is that he insists on referring to the island as a collection of “thems”, as opposed to “us”, or rather, the US. We can’t leave “our” first responders there forever; “they” have to help “themselves”; “they” should be grateful.

Part of this was self-preservation. It was clearly a disaster, but disasters can’t happen under Trump, because he is the ultimate leader, and can never take responsibility for anything. Obviously, nothing bad can happen under his watch (unless he is betrayed), so he had to distance himself from “them”.

This also, obviously, can’t be separated from racism, both Trump’s personal racism and the kind baked into every American institution. I’m not going to pretend that any other American President would be able or willing to tearfully rally the country around a protectorate we’d rather forget.

But Trump’s essential dishonesty about the situation allowed us to ignore it, changed the topic, pushed the grim fate of modern American citizens into a malarial and nightblack cesspool. Trump didn’t care about “them”, and wanted us not to care about it, so he threw some paper towels, bragged about how good he did and how he did so much better than Bush and Katrina, bragged to Puerto Ricans about their very low death toll and how Katrina was a real disaster, declared victory, and brought “our” responders home. This all really happened!

I mean, that’s not all that happened, of course. This being the Trump administration, the aftermath was wracked with corruption and incompetence, with friends of Ryan Zinke getting absurd contracts to fail to repair the electricity (which costs lives and livelihoods). That’s par for the Trumpian course, but it was born from his essential dishonesty about himself, about what happened, and about Puerto Rico.

And so thousands died needlessly. Of course there was corruption and bad leadership on the island; there is everywhere in the country. But through the lens of Trump’s racism and need to insulate himself from anything that reflects poorly, that was shluffed off as brownish third-world nonsense, and distanced further from America. Trump was able to blame Puerto Rico on Puerto Ricans, pretending they weren’t American, and shifting the conversation to how good he did.

And people died. Our modern dishonesty kills. You want another example? Watch this video.

This is a viral video claiming to show Muslims rioting in Birmingham in order to eat in the streets during Ramadan, which is a weird thing since Muslims know about sidewalks and “inside”. But of course this isn’t a Muslim riot, but rather soccer fans in Switzerland celebrating a win or mourning a loss or just embracing soccer or something.

Needless to say, the “look at these Muslims” has been seen hundreds of thousands of times, and will certainly be used to reinforce prejudice, exacerbate tension, stir up violence, and continue to fray the slight bonds that keep Western civilization together. It’s a smallish sort of thing in the grand scheme, but its virality and complete dishonesty makes it perfect for our times.

And it doesn’t take much of a stretch of your imagination to consider the President, cranky and sleepy, retweeting it and saying “Donald J Trump was RIGHT and liberal Obama/Crooked H judges WRONG about security. Need STRONG AND SMART “travel” ban (won’t say Muslim) now! Good President!”

Our days are dishonest, and falseness is their currency. It is a weapon. It is a cudgel and a scalpel, capable of huge hammering deadly blows, as in Puerto Rico, and a million tiny daily incisions, until we’re baffled and worn out and unable to process. Trump didn’t start it, and it won’t end with him. But he is the snarling, bloated culmination of these times, both embodying and enlarging them. He’s every dumb, terrible thing we’ve done wrapped up in an empty package, and his legacy will be death and discord and misery. It’s a vulgar and tacky way to reconcile empire, but it is hard to say it is undeserved.

MH-17, The Mueller SpyGate Fake Witch Hunt, and the Assault on Truth

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Despite of everything, all our efforts to commence a serious, solid and professional joint work are rejected out of hand.

“There is a well-known style, a rough, clumsy algorithm. Dirty provocations are organised, and the guilty side is determined in advance.

The so-called “investigation” is conducted almost completely on the basis of information from social networks and several international non-governmental organisations, which have tainted themselves long ago by fakes, forgeries, primitive fabrications and so on.

This unworthy style is clearly observed in the so-called ‘Skripal’s case’, Syrian chemical dossier, and previously, in the fabrication of pretexts for military invasion to Yugoslavia and Iraq.

-Russian Ambassador to Australia Grigory Logvinov, in response to Russia being definitively implicated in the downing of MH-17 over Ukraine in 2014.

 The Kremlin said on Tuesday that U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other related crimes would end one day, describing it as pointless.

“There’s hope that it will wind up one day,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked about the investigation.

“In Russian, it’s called passing water through a sieve,” he said of the U.S. probe, using a Russian expression that means flogging a dead horse. “That’s exactly what the process looks like.”

One of the big questions of the Trump Era has been whether he is stupid, is deranged, is absolutely unable not to lie, or if he plots out his provocations for maximal effect. And the answer, most likely, is: all of it.

That’s what we see at the top, a tweet string yesterday unintentionally lightened up by his under-two-hour commitment to actually work at being President. In it, he blurts out all the keyphrases and incantations that the right has ben picking up: Fake News, Spygate, Phony Russian Witch Hunt, Rigged Russia Witch Hunt, 13 Angry Democrats, Crooked Hillary, Obama/Comey/Lynch et al.  He spouts how the only collusion (or: Collusion) was by the Dems.

On the surface, of course, it is a madshow, absolute blubbering insanity. But it makes a little more sense in light of the Russian statement about MH-17, in which it was shown (though it was known) that Russian soldiers downed a civilian plane as part of their wildly illegal invasion, division, and annexation of Ukraine.

You see a fairly similar use of language here: the Syrian Chemical Dossier, the scare quotes around the Skripal Case, because it is absurd to think that Russia is responsible for an enemy of Moscow being poisoned in Russia, the use of “fakes” and “phonies” and “forgeries” to describe a 4-yr multinational investigation.

This method of argument (if one could call it that) hinges on the knowledge that there is too much information in the world today, and too many easy recourses to alternate realities, that if you say enough things they’ll stick somehow. At the very least, they’ll confuse the issue, and force your opponents to spend time arguing one point.

Like, if you want to point out how absurd it is to say that Moscow was somehow framed for Skripal, you have to go into the whole history of Litvinenko, of Yuschkenko, of Politkovskaya, of Nemtsov, each of which have their own conspiracies you could spend the rest of your life debunking.

The Russians, for very complicated reasons, have perfected this as part of their “active measures”. They can frame everything that pains Russia in a bad light as part of this long-running conspiracy against Russia, which stretches back through time, and can incorporate elements as disparate as international Jewry and Hitler.

In his book The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder uses the term schizo-fascists to describe actual Russian fascists, like literal-Balbo-type ones, who use the term fascist to describe any enemy of Russia. I think it is a sort of clunky, but very useful term, and absolutely describes this phenomenon.

Because think about it: if you are talking to an honest-to-god fascist, and saying that you oppose them, and they say, “of course you do, you fascist”, what do you say? Do you talk to them about how their policies and ideas are drawn directly from the fascism of the 30s and 40s, filtered through the local context and mythologies?

Imagine doing so! And then they’ll say that you’re suppressing their speech, and are in fact the true fascist! Antifa are the real Nazis! Anti-Rosanne’s are the real racists! Democrats are the real corrupt ones!

It’s impossible to argue against it, not just because anyone can find a conspiracy theory to back that up (and what the undead Ukrainian journalist did, while understandable and probably right and undoubtedly pretty awesome, will only give more ammo to these sides), but because you are quickly reduced to their shouting level. I’m angry right now. No, goddammit, you’re clearly the fascist you’re wearing a skull armband. 

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Yes!

That’s what Trump is doing, intentionally or not. There’s a chance he just hears these things on Fox, and believes them, because he is both the kind of dummy who believes conspiracies and the megalomaniacal paranoid dissonance-addict who thinks everything he does was done to him, and worse, by someone else. He might just be regurgitating whatever he thinks makes him sound good.

But his one great skill has always been to manipulate the minds of people through sheer bullshit, and now he has a constant megaphone with which to do it. He knows, I think, that throwing everything out there will convince enough people and throw the rest of us off guard, unbalanced, unsure of where to strike. Which bit of that madness do we argue? Which section of this flood do we try to mop up?

That’s the international right’s methodology, Russian-inspired, and it is what unites them as much as white supranationalism. It’s a tool for advancing their agenda. And it works, because when you don’t care about truth, you win. When you think that facts are just wobbly toys to be knocked over, you win. When you internalize the idea that all liberals and multinationals are evil and conspiring against you and control the media, and that you can fight against them by any means needed, and that lying in that service is a higher form of honesty, you can win.

And yes, I know that now sound like a conspiracist, ranting about their methods. That I don’t think they are terribly organized, but rather inspired by each other, doesn’t matter. That I don’t think it is a conspiracy doesn’t matter. What matters is that I sound like I do, and now I am defending it, and that’s all that matters.

 

 

 

Rename Balbo Drive! Up with Ida! Down With Fascists!

 

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This woman stared unflinchingly at evil and made us all look with her.

 

Like most people in Chicago, I for years thought Balbo Drive, a short street on the south end of the Loop, running from Printers Row and intersecting with history at Grant Park, where hippies and cops clashed in the street in 68, and where, 40 years later, our first African-American President celebrated his election, was actually called Balboa Drive. That’s how I always pronounced it, and almost certainly spelled it. That is to say: I didn’t think about it at all.

Learning (or remembering) that it was actually called Balbo marked the end of my concern for the street, except for always consciously marking the lack of a Rocky-ifying “a” in the middle, in the same way I mentally make an “L” with my thumb when turning left or think about Alison Milnamow when spelling “their” (don’t ask). Even for someone as interested in Chicago history as I am, it seemed unimportant.

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Near historic Lou Malnati’s, apparently.

That changed in the last few years, when in the wake of the country finally realizing that honoring traitors and murderous racists was bad, people pointed out that the Balbo in question was, well, questionable.

During Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, an Italian airman led a roundtrip flight of 24 seaplanes in formation for an unprecedented flight of its kind from Rome, Italy to Chicago, Illinois for the fair. In honor of the achievement, the Chicago mayor at the time, Edward Kelly, renamed the nearby three block long 7th street after the lead airman, Italo Balbo. During his time in the USA he also invited to lunch by President D. Roosevelt and received a warm welcome from Americans, particularly Italian-Americans as a shining example of Italian aviation. In fact, for a time, ‘Balbo’ became a common term to refer to a large formation of aircraft.

That might have been the end of it if the Italian government Balbo was representing at the time weren’t that of brutal Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini even donated an ancient Roman column to the city that exists to this day as another monument to the controversial Balbo. Before his aviation fame, Balbo helped institute Mussolini’s Fascist rule as a Blackshirt leader, a gang of Fascist thugs that intimidated and assaulted non-Fascists that stood in their way. He spent the rest of his life devoted to both Mussolini and Fascism. Many considered Balbo to be Mussolini’s heir before he was killed in 1940 by friendly fire.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love that there was a name of a large group of airplanes, and it was the childishly-syllabically pleasing “balbo”. It’s a balbo of planes! That’s fun! Less fun is fascism.

 

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Brutal thuggish dictator Mussolini is the guy on the left

 

But now comes a movement to rename this street after someone who is genuinely heroic, and who towers over American history: Ida B. Wells.

Balbo Drive would be renamed for Ida B. Wells, an iconic figure in the African-American community who led an anti-lynching crusade, under an aldermanic plan that is certain to stir controversy.

South Side Ald. Sophia King (4th) and downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) plan to launch the effort at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

They will introduce an ordinance to rename Balbo Drive in honor of Wells. If colleagues go along with the idea, it would be Chicago’s first permanent street renaming since 1968 and the first street in the Loop named after a woman and a person of color, according to King’s staff.

Wells was born a slave and died in Chicago, and lived a life of tireless and fearsome advocacy. She was an impossibly brave journalist, traveling at great risk throughout the south to document lynching, calling attention to this terrorist scourge, not letting America pretend that it had moved forward one inch. She called just as much attention to a barely-more-genteel form of racism in the north, particularly this violent and segregated city. She was a pioneering advocate for women’s rights, especially at the intersection of race.

In short, she made America look at itself. She was never comfortable, never safe. And she never stopped.

Thankfully, she seems to be having a bit of a moment. A movement to put a monument of her up in Bronzeville seems to be gaining steam. You can (and should!) donate to it, though it is a shame the city won’t just pay for it. If anyone deserves to be honored, it is Wells.

Now, there are a few counter-arguments. Maybe the most compelling one is that the Loop already has a street called Wells, and although the two wouldn’t intersect, or even really run near each other, that could be an issue. That one is named after William Wells, who was killed in the Battle of Fort Dearborn, a seminal moment in Chicago history, though one that is a tad bit more complex than the heroism on which we were weaned.

Still, Wells is too long to be renamed, and that’s a losing battle. I don’t think it would be that big a deal, since people would say “go to Ida B and Michigan!” There’s only three blocks to choose from. GPS might be the only obstacle here (and it is a substantial one.)

The other argument comes from (or will probably come from) the Italian-American community, which was upset last year when people wanted to remove the Mussolini monument, and there was talk of renaming Balbo to Fermi Drive.

Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans… joined Lou Rago, president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation, in writing a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times defending Balbo’s honor.

They argued that Italo Balbo had unfairly become “residual shrapnel from the barrage of bullets the rest of the country is firing over what to do with the approximate 1,500 Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces.”

They wondered why the memory of Balbo’s “remarkable accomplishments” was being “swept up into the national wave of removing the past.”

(Note: this is really cute wording. It’s the people opposed to Confederate monuments that are doing violence, and who are “removing the past.” That language isn’t exactly dissimilar to the actual Confederate symps. This is what we call a “tell”.)

“We want to be perfectly clear. Italo Balbo was an outspoken opponent of the Mussolini tilt towards Hitler and was not the enemy that many in the Chicago City Council are portraying he was,” they wrote.

“Despite being a general under Mussolini, when Balbo saw where Mussolini was going with his pro-German policies, he was horrified. He was one of the only fascists in Mussolini’s regime to openly oppose Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws and Italy’s alliance with Germany.”

That’s good! Those are definitely good things toward which to be opposed. He wasn’t a total monster. Things he wasn’t opposed to, though, include: the invasion and destruction of Ethiopia, war in Europe, the crushing of dissent, internal concentration camps, the spread of fascism, being a fascist.

 

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This is him and Benito after “conquering” Ethiopia. The only good person in history to wear a cape like that is Lando.

Now, it is interesting of course, because in America in the 30s, being a fascist wasn’t a disqualifier. It wasn’t a catch-all term for “my political opponent”. Throughout the world, there was a genuine debate if fascism was the ideal form of politics. It was a legitmate political philosophy.

This was true whether it was the personalized authoritarianism of Hitler and Mussolini, the sort of corporatist state envisioned by James Burnham, or a unique American quasi-fascist managed democracy promoted by the likes of Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and for a time even John Kenneth Galbraith.

But here’s the thing: they were wrong. They were wrong about how the powerful should run roughshod over the weak. They were wrong about how rights should be subsumed to monetary interest and the dim horizons of national glory. They were wrong about the relationship of people to state, individuals to capital, and blood and soil to ideals.

In other words, they were wrong about everything Ida B. Wells was right about. We’re still fighting those battles, as quasi-fascist strongman nationalist rule is taking hold again around the world, and America is staring at a particularly dumbshow type of authoritarianism. That’s all the more reason to change the name. We’re fighting for what we believe to be good.

This isn’t erasing the past. It’s celebrating what America should be. It’s celebrating the best of us. It’s honoring the true forgotten past, and honoring someone who never let us forget our dark present. It might be a small street, but it would be a huge step forward.