America Exposed: Greg Grandin’s “The End of the Myth”

Of all the lies America officially tells itself, one of the strangest is that “We have never occupied conquered territory.” The story goes that since the US didn’t occupy Germany after either of the wars, nor did we take any Japanese territory, there is a nobleness to our cause.

Needless to say, that’s absolute bunkum. There is not a single region of this country that wasn’t taken from Natives. Yes, the Louisiana Purchase was from France, but of course, it wasn’t filled with Frenchmen who immediately left: it was filled with Natives who were promptly extirpated.

Of course, if any action gives immediate lie to that notion, it is the occupation and annexation of enormous amounts of Mexican territory following the brutal and phony war of 1846-1848. The occupied and stolen territory gave America its western bulk; it made destiny manifest.

“It was actually Old Mexico, you dinks” -Mexico, probably

One thing that America does very well is rapidly internalizing our myths. It doesn’t matter that the war was pushed by southern slave interests hoping to create an empire of chattel. It doesn’t matter that the secession of Texas was a reaction to Mexico outlawing slavery. While a mere 20 years later slavery was defeated, the idea that this territory was anything but given to the US by God was not even entertained.

The idea of these stories, and how they have shaped the American character, is the focus of Greg Grandin’s sweeping The End of the Myth, an electrifying read which takes you from the Cumberland Gap to Gettysburg to Martin Luther King’s radicalism to the perfidy of NAFTA, all with a unifying theme.

That theme is that of the frontier, specifically, the frontier as famously articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner. The nut of the thesis, developed by the then little-known Wisconsin academic in 1893, is that “(t)he existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.”

It’s complicated, but basically that the waves of expansion (which are neither steady nor consistent) are what drives the American spirit. People come out, fight and die, scratch out an existence, fall back, push forward, etc. The land is tamed, capital moves in, people get itchy, and go to the next frontier. Violence, horror, success, railroads, and so on.

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I should be quibbling with the pristine idealness of this depiction, but really, I’m just wondering if her and Paul Bunyan ever hooked up

Now, you can (and should!) quibble with the idea that the land was “free”; the need for violence in the form of the US Army disproves that myth instantly. But the land was, I suppose, gettable. It could be got if you knew the right people (i.e. the US Army).

Grandin doesn’t so much deflate this myth as expose it for what it has always been: a pernicious way to both foment and excuse violence and expropriation while running a constant scam against the idea of freedom itself.

To back this, Grandin paraphrases Martin Luther King, who argued that the ideal “fed into multiple reinforcing pathologies: into racism, a violent masculinity, and a moralism that celebrates the rich and punishes the poor.”

This is all true, and it plays itself off as a sort of devil’s bargain. As Grandin explains:

There is a lot to unpack in the argument that over the long course of US history, endless expansion, either over land or through markets and militarism, deflects domestic extremism. How, for example, might historical traumas and resentments, myths and symbols, be passed down the centuries from one generation to another? Did the United States objectively nned to expand in order to secure foreign resources and open markets for domestic production? Or did the country’s leaders just believe they had to expand. Whatever the answers to those questions, the United States, since its dounding, pushed outward and justified that push in moral terms, as beneficial equally for the people within and beyond the frontier.

The frontier was a constant regeneration, taking the traumas of conflict and using them to start another battle, another front. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book talks is the section on the Spanish-American war, a conflict so ginned up it made the Mexican-American war look honest.

In our accepted history, the Spanish American war is a completely different era than the Civil War. That’s just how history is often taught; separate eras split by thick black lines and different quizzes. But of course, it was barely 30 years after that conflict ended. Most of its veterans were still alive. This was also barely 20 years after Reconstruction came to an ignoble and murdered end, unleashing a wave of democratic suppression and racist terror that persisted for 100 years.

And, as Grandin explains, basically no one was more excited about the Spanish-American war, and the colonial occupations that followed, than ex-Confederates. This, for them, was a way to be welcomed fully back into the American population, to prove themselves as fighters, and to kill non-whites. The Confederate flag flew over Cuba, and the Rebel Yell was heard in the Philippines.

Why does this matter? Because it was another expansion of the frontier. It was a way to regenerate the American myth after the Civil War and (maybe just as importantly) after Reconstruction. Grandin skillfully weaves the betrayal of Reconstruction with the dark decades of Jim Crow, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, and more.

This makes sense, when you start to look at American history as a continuous thing, and not something that actually happens in waves. The war for Mexican territory was fought to expand slavery. It was fought to create an American empire across the continent. The stories that we told about it- pablum about freedom, the brave men of the Alamo, standing up to an oppressive Mexican government who hated freedom so much that they outlawed slavery- was part of the same story we told ourselves of the Lost Cause, the noble South, the valiant Lee: stories that still exist.

And that, ultimately, is the lesson here. These stories are still being told, but there is nowhere left to go. The frontier has reverberated. Grandin takes us back again and again to the border, as it becomes militarized, filled with swaggering racists, both in real uniforms and in the jackal armament of vigilante militias. He brings us to a border suddenly filled with factories and economic refugees. He brings us to a border where people fleeing American-led violence in Central America end up. He brings us to a border whose fences, a cynical bargain made to pass NAFTA, trap people on both sides and make crossing a mortal threat.

In short, he brings us to today.

Trump and the End of the Myth

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This man is shaping US history

If you were to say one good thing about Donald Trump- and Christ, you really shouldn’t- it is that by being so openly vulgar, with such id-driven racism, and supplemented by such cowardly sycophants, he has forced us to recognize the cruelty that has always driven much of American policy.

Whether it is in Guantanamo Bay or when trying to gut health care or when locking up children in cages, performative, sincere cruelty (or, making a huge show of how sincerely cruel you are) is the Republican default position. Indifference to that cruelty has driven much of the so-called opposition, as well.

Reading Grandin, this makes sense. The frontier has always allowed us to push that cruelty outward, to find newer enemies, and to believe in regeneration. But now there is nowhere to go. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and everywhere else) are dim echoes of empire, grinding distant slogs only remembered with the faintest pantomimes of covered-heart “gratitude.” Global capitalism is seen as a dumb joke played on all of us, with the benefit that it is also destroying the present. The frontier, long-rumored to be dead, is officially gone.

That’s why Trump’s wall is the true end of the myth, as Grandin’s subtitle implies. We’ve been heading that way. It could easily be argued that violence against Mexico is just as much a part of the American character as slavery and genocide. It has been a centuries-long preoccupation (and real occupation). And now it has found its post-Polk apotheosis, at a time when everything seems to be crumbing.

Trump’s wall is the closing of the frontier, a sealing off of even a hypocritical American dream. And we have, just today, entered a new phase.

The firing/resignation/who cares of Kirstjen Neilsen is concentrating power in the hands of Trump and the wiry evil of anti-immigrant fanatic Stephen Miller. Today was a purge, as Mark Joseph Stern explained.

After firing Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on Sunday, President Donald Trump purged the agency’s senior management on Monday. According to CBS News, Trump secured the resignation of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Cissna, DHS Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady, and DHS General Counsel John Mitnick. He also fired U.S. Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles. Trump adviser Stephen Miller, an immigration hard-liner, reportedly masterminded the DHS purge as part of an effort to crack down on immigration at the southern border.

So what does that mean? Well:

Trump didn’t want Grady; he wanted Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. It’s easy to see why. Under McAleenan’s leadership, CBP repeatedly broke the law to implement Trump’s first travel ban, earning a rebuke from DHS’ Office of Inspector General. McAleenan is a strong proponent of a border wall as well as new laws to curb asylum-seekers’ entry into the country. He infamously failed to inform Congress that a 7-year-old girl died in CBP custody when he testified before the Senate just three days after her death.

In other words, the real hardliners are taking over. I don’t know if Nielsen was a true believer or just a spineless sycophant, and she deserves a lifetime of scorn and opprobrium either way, but apparently there were lines even she wouldn’t cross. With this purge, the Trump people are looking for people who don’t believe in lines.

We’re living in an era of a hyperactive Border Patrol who are setting up Constitution-free zones in 75% of America’s populated areas. It’s an era where ICE is given full reign to destroy people. These are the spears of the new America, and they are being molded in Trump’s lawless image.

There might be pushback (apparently, some CBP officials didn’t like Trump telling officers they didn’t have to follow the law). Trump wants us to believe that “the country is full”, which is of course laughable, except he doesn’t mean it literally. He means that we have enough brown people, and we don’t want anymore.

And that’s the heart of the wall, and the heart of the frontier, and the heart of the American myth. That this is a land destined for white people, who can do no wrong. It’s why we believe that we don’t occupy territory when the whole country is occupied. It’s why we believe that land taken from Mexico has always been American, and why were are insanely resentful that anyone could question that. It’s why we take natural migration patterns as an affront to our sacred ideals.

The wall isn’t the antithesis of the frontier, it is its howling echo. It is its fulfillment. It is the promise of white nationalism with nowhere else to go, caged and furious. It is standing athwart history and pretending it didn’t happen. It is the stupidity of Trump and the cupidity of his enablers made concrete. It is the railroad and it is Pickett’s Charge; it is Custer and Andrew Jackson; it is James Earl Ray, and it is everyone who built their life around cheap consumer goods made by broken hands in child-filled maquiladoras.

The wall is the American Dream. It’s a reality from which we need to awake.

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Endless War and Our Complicity: The Failure of the Sanders-Lee Yemen Bill Continues Genocide and America’s Brutalization

(Note: I was working on this piece for another publication before the bill in question failed to reach the floor, thanks to the shameful and bloodsoaked votes of 10 Democrats. So it might be too late, but only now, and hopefully there will be another fight. The article still stands, though, and I think illustrates how the bill failed with neither sound nor fury nor even a passing thought.)

 

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100 were killed when the Saudi bombed this funeral with US bombs

 

Do you believe the US President, Democrat or Republican, should have the unlimited power to wage unlimited war wherever he wants?

Do you believe that the United States should wage or abet war around the globe, without citizens or their representatives being able to have a say?

Do you think that the United States should be complicit in a genocidal war, even when we have essentially zero real interests in the outcome?

Does what your country does affect you? When blood is spilled in poor places, when families are pulverized into infinity by the sudden flash and pulsing thunder and tearing, renting metal, paid for with your money and launched in your name, does it matter? What responsibility do we have to the world, to ourselves, to history?

These are some of the questions being asked by a Joint Resolution introduced by Bernie Sanders and Mike Lee, saying that US support for Saudi Arabia’s murderous intervention in Yemen has never been authorized by Congress, and should therefore stop providing arms, tactical advice, and military support.

The legal heart of this question asks what it means to be at war in America in the 21st century. At its heart lies the tension between the War Powers declaration at our post-9/11 unlimited war on terror, which has created such an expansive and long-lasting view of war-making that it passes essentially unnoticed when the US participates in a non-Qaeda-based civil war on the Arabian peninsula.

Here’s the War Powers resolution of 1973.

The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

And here’s the Authorization of Military Force, passed right after September 11th:

(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Now, in theory, these don’t contradict each other. Indeed, the AUMF was drawn from clause 3, the “national emergency”. (For the definitive history of the AUMF, you should read Greg Johnsen’s Buzzfeed piece on it.) You might notice, though, that it changes “national emergency” to language allowing for the President to “prevent any future acts of international terrorism” by “nations, organizations, or persons.”

Whooboy! That’s the issue, right there. Because: what does that mean? In practice, it has meant: whatever the President wants it to mean, and that has been consistent through multiple administrations, through Bush, Obama, and now Trump. And since there is nobody reading, and indeed, nobody alive or who has ever lived in any conceivable universe, who admires all three of those men, we see that this is an enormous problem.

(And if you doubt its bipartisan credentials, remember that it was essentially reauthorized just last September, even as everyone understood the Current Occupant was a reckless fucking idiot.)

It has been a bloody disaster in practice far more than in theory, of course. There will be a million different opinions about US involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and who knows how many other nations in the years since 9/11. But there is probably no one, except maybe Max Boot, who supports them all. But the President has been allowed to wage war and kill human beings in all these lands, with essentially zero oversight, because of those words.

So why is Yemen now an issue? It’s because Yemen is the apotheosis of this madness, a country whose war is only tangentially about terrorism, and in which our pointless involvement is directly abetting one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century.

Yemen’s History is Its Present

It’s hard, possibly impossible, to overstate the degree of horror in Yemen. A civil war has engulfed the country for 7 years, or 10 years, or 14 years, or 24 years, or maybe 28 years. It’s probably best to say that the country has had overlapping civil wars for decades now, and all that stress has come to a head in the last three years.

Those three years have seen a vicious Saudi “intervention” against the Houthis, a group that had been fighting the government of the late Ali Abdullah Saleh since 2004, and has taken over control of large swaths of the country.

Saudi intervention has been a long-running war crime, a series of murderous bombing campaigns led by the US-blessed Mohammed bin Salman, wildly-corrupt future king and murderer of Yemen.  The Saudi campaign has pounded Yemen, deliberately targeting food and sanitation centers, destroying roads to cut off supplies, and blockading the ports.

 

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We’re supporting the side of a war who is doing this deliberately.

 

This has led, predictably, to mass famine and disease. Millions and millions of Yemenis face starvation, and it has seen the world’s worst cholera outbreak in decades. It seems to only get worse. It’s worth mentioning that the Houthis themselves have introduced a brutal rule, with executions, mass imprisonments, and vast corruption.

But don’t think the Saudis are intervening to protect human rights. Indeed, one of their bombing attacks, mostly done with US-supplied weapons, destroyed a prison where those innocents rounded up by the Houthis were living miserably. Freedom came at the bright and final light of an indifferent bomb.

So why are the Saudis intervening, and why does the US support them? It gets back, ostensibly, to Iran. Iran is supporting the Houthis, supplying arms, including missiles that can reach Riyadh. They are supporting their co-religionists in the Houthis, who are Shi’ites.

Because of this, we are told, the Saudis are fighting them. Yemen is a battleground in a larger civilizational war. And the US is deeply involved. The Trump administration, especially, has decided to go all in on the Saudi vs. Iran split, due both to a hatred of Iran, and a belief that helping the Saudis can lead to a regional peace deal which would make Trump look so damn good.

 

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Bragging and grinning about the weapons that lead to genocide

 

Except, it isn’t this neat. For one thing, as we’ve pointed out time and time again, Iran didn’t get involved in this war in the beginning. They were purported to, back in 2004, by Saleh himself, who wanted to turn the global community against the Houthis. And through the years, as everyone believed it, and as Iran became more invested in the regional frame of war, that they got more involved. After all, if everyone believes you are backing one side, that side better not lose.

But this isn’t based in the regional war; it is based in Yemen. The Houthi movement is part of general Zaydi discontent. Zaydi’s ran parts of north Yemen for 1000 years, before being overthrown in the 60s. In the ensuing civil war they were supported by the Saudis, who then thought monarchy trumped minor schisms. But they lost, and retreated to their ancestral safelands in the far north, near the Saudi border. Decades of neglect and minor oppression followed.

We then have to fast-forward a few decades. Yemen’s north and very secular, just-post-Communist south had united in 1990, but the marriage was a doomed one. When the bullets started flying in 1994, President Saleh used jihadis, just returned from Afghanistan and looking to spill more commie blood, as his troops. When he won, he let them essentially colonize the south, which led to years of discontent, boiling over into the Southern Movement in the late aughts (another of the overlapping civil wars).

That’s well-known, but what is less appreciated is that the jihadis were also allowed to build mosques and impose some thuggish demands on the Zaydis of the north. Now, a Saudi-based movement turned against the monarchists, and a younger generation (as well as one who had living memory of rule) chafed. War broke out in 2004, and lasted through six increasingly brutal rounds.

Now, if you’re reading this curious about terrorism, you might be wondering what the fuss is all about, or why I’m going so deep (although really surface level) into this. After all, the US has been fighting in Yemen for years. We’ve been battling al-Qaeda, the reconstituted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and ISIS there for years, to one extent or another. Why is it weird we are doing stuff there now?

Well, it is true that Yemen has seemed a direct extension of the AUMF, at least in its more expansive interpretations. AQAP, especially, has long been a powerful branch of Qaeda, and seems like it will outlast ISIS. And there have been counter-terrorism raids by the Trump admin, which wants to expand their scope. While I think that is madness and will only help AQAP, it still does seem to fit into the rough definition of the AUMF. So what’s the big whoop?

Well, regardless of what you think of the AUMF, our support for Saudi Arabia isn’t covered. As we saw, the very Sunni Islamists terrorists we’re fighting were supported by, trained by, and brought to life by Saudi Arabia. And yes, the Saudi government, or at least parts of it, is against the radicals now. But regardless: the Saudis are not in Yemen to fight al-Qaeda. We’re helping the Saudis bomb Qaeda’s enemies, the Shi’ite Houthis.

Even if you think the Houthis aren’t our allies, and they certainly are not, this is so far beyond the scale of the AUMF as to be ridiculous. This only has to do with Iran, the true sworn enemy of ISIS and AQ, who hate apostates more than infidels. When you combine that with the reality that the hideous destruction of the country can only boost Islamic militancy, you’ll see we’re 180 degrees from even the most hawkish reading of that short paragraph.

We Are the Nightmare We’ve Created

And yet, there is no outrage. There is no real debate. Sanders-Lee barely got any coverage, and its failure was completely ignored. That 10 Dems voted against it was met with outrage from several activist communities online, but I would be doubtful there will be much impact.

Granted, much of this can be tied to the daily cavalcade of tacky and obscene horrors committed by our slouchingly venal oaf of a President. It is hard for any story to get oxygen. But what has happened, what we’ve allowed to happen to ourselves, isn’t Trump. It’s bigger than that. It’s all-encompassing and generational. It’s where we’ve committed ourselves as a country, beyond party, beyond creed, and beyond reason.

We are so committed to an endless war, with endless permutations, that we greet its continuation with less than a shrug. We greet American complicity in what is nothing less than a genocide with indifference. We don’t even react when bombs we’ve created and sold on the cheap are dropped on hospitals, used to starve innocents and poison children. We can’t be bothered to care that our government is directly complicit in one of the true horrors of the 21st century.

We’ve also come to accept, bizarrely, that we can do this even in the face of abject failure. It’s not just that we’ve come to accept genocidal war. We’ve accepted it even though we know it does no good. We know that Iraq failed and made things worse. We know that Libya bred chaos and, in addition to the nightmares, created more safe havens for Islamists. We know that what’s happening in Yemen can’t end well, even if you only conceive of the world in the narrowest possible American-focused lenses.

So we’ve accepted total and complete war, and accepted we’ll lose. And we don’t care.

That’s terrifying and disquieting and teeth-gnashing and horrible on its own. But even if you accept all this, even if you think it is fine, as long as we are “fighting terrorism”, this particular intervention is pure madness. Because we’re essentially intervening on the side that is promoting terrorism, against the side that is supported by the #1 enemy of the combatants we’ve sworn to kill.

That isn’t to say Iran is the good guy. It’s just to say that being on the wrong, self-defeating side of this war isn’t a bug. It’s the whole goddamn point.

This is madness. And it is madness that we’ve accepted. It’s why Yemen may be the apotheosis of our post-9/11 state of myxomatosis-borne degeneracy, but, we recognize with frothing horror, might not end up being the worst.

Utilities in Cairo Illinois: The Price of History

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Cairo Illinois, at the tip of the state where it flows into Kentucky, is where the Ohio and the Mississippi flow into each other, where two great river systems crashing their way through America join the east and the Midwest on the way to the Gulf. It a slow, languid area, more deep south than Midwest, a strange humid little pocket in a state dominated by farm concerns and the bulk of Chicago.

Cairo (pronounced Kay-Row) is far from Chicago, a northern Great Lakes city born of industry. Cairo is, and always has been, a river town, a transit point. It’s proximity to great shipping areas should make it wealthy, or at least well off. Or at the very least, alive. But Cairo isn’t. It is grasping and almost dead, with over 100 years of racial violence, mismanagement, and neglect having brought it low. It’s few thousand remaining residents are battered by greed, oversight, and disinterest.

And, because this is America, race. It has been tortured by the violence of our endemic, perhaps inherent, racism. And it remains that way. Race, and the long tendrils of history, have choked the life out of Cairo, leaving it a broken city, filled with paranoia and injustice. One symptom of that is incredibly high utility prices. This seems minor, or at least explicable, but understanding why is key to the whole thing.

If you want to understand this, you have to read this incredible series in The Southern Illinoisian by Molly Parker and Issac Smith. A 7-part series published this week titled “Why Are Electric Rates in Cairo So High?”, it seems like a simple question, or like a weird little quirky thing. But it isn’t. It is a complex and terrible story, and Parker and Smith truly dig into it, in some of the finest journalism I’ve read in a long time. It shows just how much history and modernity have conspired to make life in Cairo increasingly difficult.

You should really read it, but it comes down to simple math: the poorest people in the state are being charged the most for electricity.

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On Independence Day

 

(There’s not a real reason for this song, except it is elegiac and haunting and has been in my head, and it is awesome and represents the best of us, our creativity and drive, and that it has Canadians and Brits makes it even more beautifully and beatifically American in the best sense)

There is something grotesque and unwholesome about waking up on a blinding blue 4th of July and contemplating Donald Trump. It’s a day of jubilant parauppa-dum-dum parades and picnics along the lake. We shouldn’t be thinking about this waking nightmare, this wretched intrusion into our civic life. But then, it is exactly what we should be thinking about, because of how this intrusion reflects on our yearly show of patriotism.

What do these parades mean in the age of Trump? Where do our claims to greatness stand? Is celebrating Independence Day when Donald Trump is President a rebuke to his intrusion, or is it the same head-in-sand ignorance and chest-beating triumphalism that allowed our democracy to be so degraded?

To answer that, I think, we have to really think about that horrible phrase, “the Age of Trump”. It still seems ridiculous to say and makes the fingers itch to type; after all, how can we name an age for such an obvious buffoonish clown? As someone who has hated Donald Trump for as long as I can remember (really, literally), it is particularly painful. Here’s what I wrote last year during the primaries, which I think still rings true.

 He was the pinnacle of the worst of the 1980s, of the greed and opulence that marked our “return to traditional values”. In the 1990s, he was an avatar of cheating wealth, floating through a pointless time, opening and closing casinos, taking advantage of a game that was, for once and all, rigged toward the rich. In the 2000s he dominated the heightened idiocy of our reality age, all artifice and fake drama obscuring the disasters below our feet. And then of course in this decade he has been our preeminent birther, and the leader of the paranoid and hateful brigade.

In short, he’s been at the forefront of what has been the worst in American culture for four decades. He’s represented what is greedy and vulgar and dirty and stupid, what is fake and pompous and overblown and artificial. His glamour has always been the dull and lifeless sex of hostage porn, the weeping simulacrum of something beautiful. Whatever the American dream is, he’s been buying it on the cheap, packing it into something gaudy and worthless, and selling it at a profit.

He has always been this person: an insecure bully, an overhyped dope, a tabloid non-person. But that’s what has been celebrated. Artifice, vulgarity, ignorance, the virtues of blow-hardedness, the diminution of expertise, the faux-regular-guy with the golden yacht. We’ve celebrated the fake for so long that it isn’t an aberration. It might be part of our national character.

Every country has its myths and legends, and every country sees its best reflections in history’s dirty mirror. I can’t say that America is unique in this. But not being unique isn’t a virtue. America has always told a story of itself that is almost the exact inverse of the truth. It’s a cliche to say “We said all men were created equally, but still had slavery”, but really: think about it. The intensity of that hypocrisy is overwhelming, and yet, we still tell ourselves the myths of liberty.

We tell ourselves that America is now, and always has been, uniquely virtuous, and that we’ve never taken land in a war, and yet our entire country is stolen land. We warred for over a century to annihilate the existing nations. We were the exterminators. The British, French, even the Spanish after time weren’t interested in taking over all the land. Their claims were economic, making deals with the native nations to rob them. It wasn’t virtuous, of course, but it was nothing compared to the violent horrors of when America decided she wanted all the land.

(Want a good representation of our colonization process versus, say, the English? There are a billion Indians in India. The English, for all their cruelty, bigotry, and avarice, didn’t wipe them out, just as they didn’t wipe out the native tribes here. But we still somehow tell ourselves we are unique in our goodness, even while every inch of land was stolen via murder, war and broken treaty.)

We’ve employed horrific violence against workers trying to win rights. We’ve employed horrific violence against minorities trying to vote and take equal part in the civic life promised to them. We’ve employed horrific violence against the LGBTQ community for daring to be human. And those assaults–on labor, on voting rights, on equal rights–still continue, through legal means.

And yet, doesn’t that represent a kind of progress? Isn’t that sort of the point of America, this wild and fractious land, that we struggle toward a more perfect union, never getting there, but making incremental progress? Isn’t it inspiring that we’ve changed the battlefield for rights?

It is, yes. But that we’re still fighting those battles, and that the supposed rear-guard is actually winning, despite being in the minority is, I think, less an aberration but a continuation of our national character. It’s part of our belief that somehow good will always win even in the face of bad actors, and in our belief that America does good simply by doing. That we can’t do wrong, because we’re America.

That’s artifice, obviously, and it is artifice in a way that Trump exemplifies. He is a fake, and always has been. He’s a relentless self-promoter of his wholly-invented mythology, and in that way is extremely American. That he is grotesque and disgusting and entirely ignorant doesn’t make him distant from other hucksters and Gantrys, but rather an evolution.

That’s where America is right now. We’ve had 40 years of anti-intellectual “elite-bashing”, of praising “Real Americans” while destroying their jobs and poisoning their air and water, and that’s combined with a truly idiotic reality-show/tabloid/celebrity culture. None of this is entirely unique in America, but it does mix with our lack of historic honesty to create a culture in which a man like Donald Trump does more than exist, and more than thrive: it’s one in which he rises to unimaginable power, not despite, but because of these elements. He’s the right man for his time.

So yes, it is a weird 4th. We have to reconcile the fact that we aren’t a mature democracy. A mature democracy wouldn’t create opportunities for Donald Trump to rise in politics, and it certainly wouldn’t have a mechanism where he could win with fewer votes than his opponent (another legacy of slave power). A mature democracy wouldn’t allow a minority power to ruthlessly gerrymander votes out of existence based entirely on race.

This is where I want to offer hope. After all, it turns out our institutions are standing strong. The workers of the state are loyal to the country and are resisting Donald Trump’s attempts to turn them into personal servants. The courts are standing up to him. The media has seemed to at least sort of learn their lesson, and aren’t being cowered. And the people continue to resist his attempts to make bigotry and hatred the law and rule of the land.

But maybe it is already. Maybe the worst of us use these national myths not to unify, but to further their agenda of hatred (because it is impolite to cry “racism”). Maybe the worst of us use our devotion to 18th-century documents to erase actual democracy. Maybe there is something inherent in the American character, in our devotion to the myth and  that makes it easy for the worst of us to win. Maybe we’re just too big and wild and impossible to be governed.

We have to reconcile with these stories. They have raw power, and can often been used for good. This has happened as recently as the election of Barack Obama, a decent man who invoked these myths as a way to inspire. They’ll be used for good today, when we smile at neighbors and paint our faces and snuggle on blankets to watch fireworks enredden and smolder the bat-wheeling night. And that will be good, and we’ll be happy.

But when a man with no decency and no dignity is fronting an agenda that works to enshrine minority power, subvert democracy, and sell off our heritage, we have to ask ourselves what these stories mean. It’s time to tell a new one, before it is too late.

 

Say No to Unity: A Quick Aside on the Scalise Shooting (and programming note)

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(Apologies for the no posts in a week- have been working on a side project that goes off today, and will finally have time to breathe after this evening. Back to regular posting next week.)

As a quick aside on the horrific shooting in Alexandria yesterday. The shooter was clearly disturbed, and driven mad by the constant thrum of political anger that hangs over the country like a cloud of doomed, lust-mad cicadas, endlessly screeching to be heard before the reaping. And that is a very dangerous situation. The surprising thing isn’t what happened yesterday; it’s that it hasn’t happened more often.

(It has, of course, just not directed toward Congressmen. Hate crimes and race-driven murders have spiraled upward since Trump’s election, and of course, violence is part of the fabric of America. A gunman killed three in San Francisco yesterday, and it barely was a blip.)

But there are a few things about that, as we are met with calls for “unity” and “turning down the temperature” and everything.

  1. Donald Trump is still a uniquely horrifying President, who should not be in office. His policies hurt the United States, he is bone-dumb ignorant and childishly cruel, and his whole circle is based on corruption. Mueller is looking into obstruction of justice. That hasn’t changed because a crazy person also hated him. He still must be resisted.
  2. The GOP is still trying to destroy the environment, wreck workers rights, and take away the health care of tens of millions of Americans, which will lead to the deaths of thousands. That they were shot at by someone who is opposed to that doesn’t make their policies any less destructive.
  3. It benefits the party in power to call for “unity” and to ask people to stop being so gosh-darn angry.

Obviously, Point #3 isn’t conspiratorial. It’s just cynically convenient. It’s convenient to say that looking into all this colluding and justice-obstructing is “raising the temperature.” It’s convenient for the GOP to say that despite this assault, they’ll continue to do “the people’s work”, regardless of the fact the people are opposed to the AHCA with almost shocking bipartisan uniformity. It’s convenient for them to say they’ll soldier on courageously, and using the shooting to deflect criticism.

And, to be sure, it is brave, in a sense. What happened yesterday was horrifying, and I’m sure personally shocking. Granted, it doesn’t seem to have changed anyone’s mind on guns. Indeed, there are many calling for fewer restrictions, so that everyone there could have returned fire. (which, I guess, isn’t politicizing tragedy?) You can see the depth of ideological madness where the response to getting a taste of the violence that keeps this country on the butcher’s block is to sound out a clarion call for increased violence.

And that’s the point. Their policies are still ruinous and destructive. They still must be resisted. That Steve Scalise caught a bullet doesn’t make his push to destroy healthcare and shatter the lives of millions any more moral or understandable. The Mo Brooks came across pretty well doesn’t mean his promotion of total corporate mastery over labor and the environment any less hideous. Scalise didn’t deserve what happened, and nor did the people around him.  We all obviously hope they all recover fully, and live long happy lives.

But they still should be resisted, at every step of the way. They are trying to deny others that long, happy life. They are trying to turn humans and the earth into capital. This shouldn’t be met with violence, but with votes and with voices. Silence and unity, at this moment, will more destructive than anger.

Jared Kushner, Slumlord, Gets Richer By Destroying Lives

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These men are no different. They are rich vampires who prey on the weak.

The invaluable Alex MacGillis at ProPublica has an in-depth story about one of the ways in which Jared Kushner, he who will solve the Middle East, takes advantage of other people to whom the world has been less than kind. It’ll take some block-quoting.

But amid the high-profile Manhattan and Brooklyn purchases, in 2011, Kushner Companies, with Jared now more firmly in command, pulled together a deal that looked much more like something from the firm’s humble past than from its high-rolling present. That June, the company and its equity partners bought 4,681 units of what are known in real-estate jargon as “distress-ridden, Class B” apartment complexes: units whose prices fell somewhere in the middle of the market, typically of a certain age and wear, whose owners were in financial difficulty. The properties were spread across 12 sites in Toledo, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and other Rust Belt cities still reeling from the Great Recession. Kushner had to settle more than 200 debts held against the complexes before the deal could go through; at one complex, in Pittsburgh, circumstances had become so dire that some residents had been left without heat and power because the previous owner couldn’t pay the bills. Prudential, which was foreclosing on the portfolio, sold it for only $72 million — half the value of the mortgages on the properties.

In the following months, Kushner Companies bought another 1,700 multifamily units in similar markets, according to the trade publication Multifamily Executive. Unlike the company’s big New York investments, the complexes were not acquired with an eye toward appreciation — these were not growing markets, after all — but toward producing a steady cash flow. “Our goal is to keep buying and incrementally growing — they’re good markets where you can get yield,” Jared Kushner told Multifamily Executive in October 2011, predicting that the net income for the year’s purchases would be $14 million within a year. The complexes buttressed the Kushner portfolio in another way, he said: They would serve as a hedge against an upswing in inflation he believed was looming on the horizon.

So how does this make him money? Lawsuits. He apparently has a team of turkey vultures swooping in for any little mistake on the lease, any minor violation, and any discrepancy they could find in order to sue.  A woman who broke a lease early to tend to her dying mother lost thousands of dollars. A woman who didn’t replace her carpet after the sink backed up was sued for $600.

But you don’t even have to be in the wrong to get screwed by Kushner. You just have to be less wealthy than he is, and not able to stand up to him in court.

(Kamiia) Warren sent a letter reporting the problem to the complex’s property manager, a company called Sawyer Realty Holdings. When there was no response, she decided to move out. In January 2010, she submitted the requisite form giving two months’ notice that she was transferring her Section 8 voucher — the federal low-income subsidy that helped her pay the rent — elsewhere. The complex’s on-site manager signed the form a week later, checking the line that read “The tenant gave notice in accordance with the lease.”

So Warren was startled in January 2013, three years later, when she received a summons from a private process server informing her that she was being sued for $3,014.08 by the owner of Cove Village. The lawsuit, filed in Maryland District Court, was doubly bewildering. It claimed she owed the money for having left in advance of her lease’s expiration, though she had received written permission to leave. And the company suing her was not Sawyer, but one whose name she didn’t recognize: JK2 Westminster LLC.

Warren was raising three children alone while taking classes for a bachelor’s degree in health care administration, and she disregarded the summons at first. But JK2 Westminster’s lawyers persisted; two more summonses followed. In April 2014, she appeared without a lawyer at a district court hearing. She told the judge about the approval for her move, but she did not have a copy of the form the manager had signed. The judge ruled against Warren, awarding JK2 Westminster the full sum it was seeking, plus court costs, attorney’s fees and interest that brought the judgment to nearly $5,000. There was no way Warren, who was working as a home health aide, was going to be able to pay such a sum. “I was so desperate,” she said.

JK2, is, of course, Jared Kushner, the most absurd man in an absurd administration. There is something particularly venal about him, a rich New York socialite who yokes himself to evil incompetence for more power, who is using his status to further enrich his family, and who encourages obstruction of justice while doing nothing to rein in the racist cruelty of his father-in-law’s ghoulish entourage.

But that’s probably because he doesn’t want to. This is a mean shark, a rich bully who thinks he’s the underdog. He’s a scion who can drop hundreds of millions on a deal and pretend he’s earned the chip on his shoulder.

Early in the Adminstration, there were stories about how Kushner had become close with the horrible xenophobic racist Jeff Sessions. “Then there is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who considers Sessions a savant and forged a bond with the senator while orchestrating Trump’s trip last summer to Mexico City and during the darkest days of the campaign.”

Jeff Sessions has spent a whole career in pursuit of one thing, and one thing only: white power. Whether that came from jailing black longer and in crueler conditions, protecting police from charges of racial brutality, closing off the border, or cutting welfare from strapping young bucks, his project has been the same. He didn’t wow Jared with his ability to talk the deficit. So what did Kushner consider him to be savant-like about?

This seemed incongruous. But it clearly isn’t. Kushner is a deeply cruel and shallow sociopath. He clearly feels that wealth is for the wealthy and privilege, including racial privilege, is for the privileged.

Look at this nightmare.

Kamiia Warren still had not paid the $4,984.37 judgment against her by late 2014. Three days before Christmas that year, JK2 Westminster filed a request to garnish her wages from her in-home elder care job. Five days earlier, Warren had gone to court to fill out a handwritten motion saying she had proof that she was given permission to leave Cove Village in 2010 — she had finally managed to get a copy from the housing department. “Please give me the opportunity to plead my case,” she wrote. But she did not attach a copy of the form to her motion, not realizing it was necessary, so a judge denied it on Jan. 9, on the grounds that there was “no evidence submitted.”

 

The garnishing started that month. Warren was in the midst of leaving her job, but JK2 Westminster garnished her bank account too. After her account was zeroed out, a loss of about $900, she borrowed money from her mother to buy food for her children and pay her bills. That February — five years after she left Cove Village — Warren returned to court, this time with the housing form in hand, asking the judge to halt garnishment. “I am a single mom of three and my bank account was wiped clean by the plaintiff,” she pleaded in another handwritten request. “I cannot take care of my kids when they snatch all of my money out of my account. I do not feel I owe this money. Please have mercy on my family and I.” She told me that when she called the law office representing JK2 Westminster that same day from the courthouse to discuss the case, one of the lawyers told her: “This is not going to go away. You will pay us.”

The judge denied Warren’s request without explanation. And JK2 Westminster kept pressing for the rest of the money, sending out one process server after another to present Warren with legal papers. Finally, in January 2016, the court sent notice of a $4,615 lien against Warren — a legal claim against her for the remaining judgment. Warren began to cry as she recounted the episode to me. She said the lien has greatly complicated her hopes of taking out a loan to start her own small assisted living center. She had gone a couple of years without a bank account, for fear of further garnishing. “It was just pure greed,” she said. “It was unnecessary.” I asked why she hadn’t pushed harder against the judgment once she had the necessary evidence in hand. “They know how to work this stuff,” she replied. “They know what to do, and here I am, I don’t know anything about the law. I would have to hire a lawyer or something, and I really can’t afford that. I really don’t know my rights. I don’t know all the court lingo. I knew that up against them I would lose.”

That’s right. That’s the way of America’s worst family. Take on those who can’t stand up for themselves, who can’t afford your lawyers. That’s “toughness” to them. They attack the weak. They prey on economic insecurity and exploit it for power. They dig at the margins of society.

America is a terrifying place. The line between getting along and tumbling into unrecoverable poverty is a thin one. There is no way that Jared Kushner will ever notice that $5000, minus lawyer fees. He’ll get, what, a grand maybe? Two? He would scoff at that if he found it in his glove box.

But that’s money that can ruin a life. It can push some down into the cracks, and foreclose on their dreams. It can spiral them into an unstoppable cycle of poverty and despair. It can stop them from finishing school, from opening a business, from providing even the most meager future for their kids. It can take away the roof over their head.

That’s Kushner. That’s the cruel and petty man behind the cruel and petty man-child. If he goes to prison for obsturctuion of justice it will be a perversion of the system. It’s the least of his crimes. This story proves that he represents the worst of the vampire rich, the heartless techno/plutocrats, with his vapid wife and snarling lawyers.

We had the American Psycho wrong with Don Jr. and Eric. It was Jared all along. There’s a reason why he’s the closest to Trump. They’re the same terrible person.

 

Floodplain Treaty Shows Ridiculousness of Trump’s Mexican Border Wall (and borders in general)

 

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As you can clearly see, the wall doesn’t spring forth from the seeded earth. 

 

There are few things more inherently unnatural than a border. We know this on a human level: they are weird and arbitrary lines drawn on a map. We understand this culturally, especially when we look at the Middle East or Africa, at colonial maps that were drawn without concern for how it would impact the people living there, and we are dealing with their legacies. Borders are the result of wars and appropriations and treaties and traditions, and not inherent things unto themselves. They only have meaning because we decide they should.

But step back, and they are even more unnatural. They idea of borders is absurdly recent in human history, which makes it impossibly new on the planet. Borders, geologically, don’t mean anything. Even if a border is drawn to correspond with part of nature, like along a river, well…rivers shift. (Sometimes very quickly!) The land isn’t really interested in political distinctions that only appear on some pencil-neck’s globe.

We’re reminded of this by an NPR story on how the idiotic and immoral border wall proposal by Trump might be stopped by an obscure 50-yr treaty.

Texas-based NPR reporter John Burnett says Antonio Rascón, chief Mexican engineer on the International Boundary and Water Commission, came to NPR with the story.

The commission is both in Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, and is normally a quiet job about diplomacy and allocation of water, Burnett says. But Rascón told Burnett he was gravely concerned about what a concrete wall would do to the river, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Mexico has been growing more and more alarmed as they see plans for Trump’s wall progress,” Burnett says. “In the west desert on the Arizona-Mexico border we have proven examples that border security fencing has clogged with debris and has caused very serious flooding in places. … These walls, when they get clogged with debris, act like a dam.”

A 1970 treaty signed by both countries says neither side can put an obstruction in the floodplain, unless both countries sign off.

Now, it goes on to explain, we have been putting obstructions there (the fence), much to Mexico’s dismay and protest, but they haven’t really protested much. But if an enormous wall that will be partially underground goes up? A wall that will block the natural flow of water and almost certainly cause flooding on the Mexican side?

It’s almost too perfect. We’ve been using water as a weapon against Mexico for 150 years, whether it has been diverting most of the Colorado and sending them the polluted and salinated trickles, or just dumping pollution in southbound rivers. (And while there has been progress made, that’s in jeopardy now.)  What bigger “Screw you” could there be than to enact a racist, cruel, and dehumanizing border wall that has the added impact of causing flooding? It’s the height of bigoted indifference.

It also shows just how arbitrary and stupid the border actually is. I’m not advocating for “open borders” or anything,  but they are deeply unnatural. The floodplain will exist regardless of what lines we draw or how we pave it over. Water will flow where it flows, and people will imitate that water, crossing and erasing these lines. A wall is nothing more than a vanity-piece for a racist bloated manchild. To even entertain it is to show how fake these divisions on which he’s based his Presidency really are.