Ida B. Wells, Unknown Heroine – 2/18/2018

February 18, 2018 Leave a comment

February is Black History Month. While it is important to acknowledge Black history, I am struck by how little of that history is integrated into America’s mainstream narratives. There is awareness of historical moments like the Civil Rights Movement and icons like Martin Luther King Jr. but so much history is buried.

Such is the case with Ida B. Wells, a true heroine, who has received insufficient attention as a historical figure. In a very dark time, at the risk of her life, she challenged the nation on a critical and ignored moral issue. She must be considered one of the most courageous leaders in American history and yet, few of us know who she is or what she did.

Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862. She lost both her parents at age 16 when they died in a yellow fever epidemic. As an orphan, she became the primary caretaker for six brothers and sisters.

While caring for her siblings, Wells was still able to complete her studies and earn a college degree. Wells’ biographer, Paula Giddings, says that Wells gravitated to creative expression as a way to cope with the loss of her parents.

Wells moved to Memphis Tennessee in the 1880’s and she became a school teacher. She loved literature and she participated in the Memphis Lyceum,  a forum for readings, debates, music and poetry.

The Lyceum was a place where Wells had an opportunity to develop her creative sensibilities, read and write her own work, and perform. She became known for her oratorical skills.

Wells’ first act of protest on behalf of black Southerners came in 1884. Like an early day Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat on the train from Memphis to Woodstock, where she taught school. Wells had purchased a first-class ticket. She refused to leave her seat when a conductor told her she had to move to the train’s smoking car.

It took the conductor and two passengers to physically extricate her from her first class seat. She did not go willingly. She bit the hand of the conductor who strong-armed her.

Wells retained a lawyer and she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The trial court ruled in her favor, awarding her $500 in damages. The railroad company appealed and the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the judge and the court ordered Wells to pay court fees.

The Tennessee Supreme Court of that era was filled with Confederate veterans who continued to maintain a segregationist outlook.

Just to give a flavor of the times, in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights laws that prohibited discrimination in public accommodations were unconstitutional. The highest court in the land disgracefully served up racism and support for Jim Crow laws.

Wells was the first African American to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a state court.

This experience kicked off Wells’s career as a journalist. She started writing editorials in black newspapers that challenged Jim Crow laws across the South. In addition to continuing her teaching duties, she became editor and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a black-owned paper. She wrote:

“It was through journalism that I found the real me.”

For African Americans of that period, lynching had become a central issue because lynchings were happening with increasing frequency. In 1892, the issue became personal for Wells. Three friends, who owned a popular store, the People’s Grocery, in Memphis were arrested and jailed after a scuffle with a group of white men.

A white mob broke into the jail, removed Wells’s three friends, and proceeded to lynch them in a nearby field.

The lynchings incensed Wells and she decided to conduct her own investigation of lynching. Initially, in 1892, she wrote a pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors”. She challenged the mythology that black men were being murdered for raping white women. She showed that in the 728 lynchings which had happened over the preceding decade, only a fourth of the lynching victims were even accused of rape, let alone found guilty of it.

Wells argued that many lynching victims had either successfully competed against whites in business or they were outspoken and had somehow challenged white authority. She revealed that many lynching victims were black women and girls.

Wells’ writing did not make her popular in Memphis. In editorials, she urged the black community to leave Memphis since “it will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons”. Over 6000 black people fled Memphis in the next three months.

Wells received death threats and there was a price on her head. She herself was threatened with being lynched and she fled Memphis on May 27, 1892. A mob destroyed the offices of her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. The mob left a note saying anyone attempting to publish the paper again would be punished by death.

Raising the profile of the lynching issue to an international level, in 1893-1894 Wells went to England to speak, write and lobby. She was not getting help from our own government.

Wells called for the immediate implementation of federal policies that would protect black lives from lynching. She saw lynching as a tool used by white supremacy to prevent any Black social advancement. She early recognized lynching as a national crime that required a national remedy. For an article published in 1900 entitled “Lynch Law in America”. Wells wrote:

“Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of the hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death…without trial by jury…and without right of appeal.”

No issue better illustrates the failure of states’ rights to protect black lives than lynching. Between 1877 and 1950, there were over 4,000 lynchings in the United States. Until her death in 1931, Wells fought doggedly for anti-lynching legislation at the federal level. For decades, Southern senators blocked this legislation.

Many people continued to oppose federal government jurisdiction over what was seen as a state crime even though the record of the states was beyond dismal. In the rare cases when white people were arrested and charged at the state level for lynching, they were repeatedly acquitted by all-white juries.

Lynchings eventually declined in the 20th century but not until 1952 did a full year pass without a recorded lynching in the United States. Wells probably did more than anyone to raise popular awareness about the crimes committed and to advocate for solutions. No person is more associated with the anti-lynching movement in America.

Wells was a forerunner of today’s Black Lives Matter movement. The historian Isabel Wilkerson has described the epidemic of police shootings of black people as a continuation of lynching culture in the United States.

As part of Black History Month, part of our collective responsibility as Americans should be to rectify our historical records and history books. One way to do this is to recognize and celebrate figures from the past who deserve a place of honor, but who have been overlooked or shunted aside because the stories present unpleasant truths or conflict with our popular narratives. Ida Wells is such a person.

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Deporting way more than “bad hombres” – posted 2/7/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/14/2018

February 7, 2018 1 comment

This piece ran in the Concord Monitor on 2/14/2018 under the title “Jorge Garcia is no ‘bad hombre'”.

When President Trump ran for the office of president, he promised to get rid of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He also, in his typical contradictory fashion, said folks who have DACA status have nothing to worry about. It has been impossible to get a straight answer on DACA from Trump.

Last September Trump terminated the DACA program. Trump gave Congress six months for a legislative fix. That time is almost up and there is no agreed-upon solution.

Trump is responsible for stripping deportation protections from 800,000 people who have been raised as Americans. Never in my lifetime has a president messed so carelessly with so many lives.

Lately, Trump, in playing to his base, has been badmouthing immigrants and he has repeatedly cited crimes committed by immigrants. Appealing to nativism, he has been advocating much more restrictive legal immigration.

Deportation of “bad hombres” has been a central Trump theme. Bad hombres were ostensibly those who had committed multiple criminal violations.

In practice, the Trump administration’s pledge to deport bad hombres has turned out to be lip service only. They have gone after any immigrant classified as “illegal” they could get their hands on. The tag “illegal”, regardless of circumstance, has been the acid test for deportation.

The single best example to support what I am saying is the deportation of a Michigan man, Jorge Garcia. That happened on January 15. The government deported Garcia back to Mexico.

Garcia was brought to the United States illegally when he was ten years old. He lived in the United States for 30 years. He married and he and his wife Cindy have two adolescent children. Garcia’s wife and children are U.S. citizens.

Garcia worked as a landscaper. He has no criminal record. For years he fought unsuccessfully to gain legal status paying lawyers over $100,000. A lawyer he hired took retainer money and then filed wrong paperwork, setting back his case. For 13 years, he checked in regularly with Immigrations, Customs Enforcement officials. He never left Detroit, where he lived, without permission from immigration authorities.

He had received multiple stays of removal during President Obama’s presidency although he was one year too old to qualify for DACA. He always paid his taxes.

In the end, 30 years of good behavior counted for nothing. You have to ask: what happened to the focus on bad hombres? The Jorge Garcia example has been replicated over and over. A more accurate characterization of Trump’s approach to immigration is family-wrecking. It is beyond callous.

I know there are those who will say Jorge Garcia was “illegal” but I would suggest illegality in immigration is not such a simple or clearcut matter. The circumstances of illegality vary dramatically. Much depends on the underlying facts you consider when drawing conclusions about illegality.

In her book Undocumented, Aviva Chomsky gets at the complexity:

“Most of the citizens who brag that their ancestors came here “the right way” are making assumptions based on ignorance. They assume their ancestors “went through the process” and obtained visas, as people are required to do today. In fact, most of them came before any legal process existed – before the concept of “illegality” existed.”

Chomsky points out that illegality as we now know it did not come into existence until after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Before that, immigration was not depicted in negative terms nor did the public demand legislation about it.

Until 1924, the border between the United States and Mexico was essentially unpoliced and migration flowed without limitation. U.S. business interests required the labor of Mexicans. Employers depended on that labor in a wide variety of industries including agriculture, mining, automobile factories and railroads.

Mexican migrants came to the Southern border without papers and were admitted into the country. Later the U.S. government created the Bracero program. From 1942 to 1964, millions of Mexicans migrated seasonally, especially for farm labor.

Where Congress had concerns about illegality in the 19th century it was not about Mexicans because they were needed for the economic development of the Southwest. There was a racist focus on the Chinese, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This kind of racist focus was repeated in the 1924 Immigration Act when quotas were instituted, in part, to stop European Jewish immigration to the United States.

I would point out that many of those excluded from immigrating to the United States by the 1924 Act ended up in the Nazi death camps. Anne Frank was one of these. In this instance, immigration “legality” fed innocent victims to a machinery of death. Historical experience with racism in immigration policy suggests a need to be circumspect so there is not a repetition of past experience in a different context.

I think of Ellis Island when I think of immigration to the U.S.. Ellis Island was established in 1892. People did not wait in line or follow some legal process before they came to Ellis Island. They gathered their family members, got the money together for the trip, and headed to America. They just showed up at Ellis Island.

My family emigrated from Russia and my father showed me a name change document from 1915 where our family name was changed from Bardichevsky to Baird. At that time the United States had minimal entry requirements for European and Russian immigrants. The U.S. Public Health Service tested for infectious diseases. They also looked at whether you might become a public charge but practically everyone who came got into the country.

Many undocumented who are trying to enter the United States now have fled countries because of a fear they will be persecuted, tortured or murdered if they are returned to their home country. Following World War II, the United Nations established a principle of international law known as refoulement or non-return. The principle forbid the return of asylum seekers who were likely to be tortured or murdered.

This principle which became enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as well as the 1980 Refugee Act is frequently being ignored by Customs and Border Protection officers. Many refugees are not even getting to see an asylum officer. This reality was devastatingly portrayed by Sarah Stillman in an article “No Refuge” that appeared in the January 15 New Yorker.

The Trump Administration has been in such a hurry to deport people they see as “illegal” that they are massively violating human rights. Our government has not been keeping track of how many people who have been refused asylum have ended up dead once they were returned to their home countries.

To put the matter of immigration illegality in a truly correct context, we have to consider a matter that is almost universally overlooked. English colonizers aggressively displaced a large network of Native American nations when they invaded the North American continent. They seized land and resources; waged a savage war; forced the Indian nations into treaties and then systematically violated those treaties. We are the inheritors of that genocide.

While victors typically write the history, American historical experience weighs against any self-righteousness where immigration is concerned. Crime and immigration are a tricky subject.

The immigration crime narrative cooked up by Trump is a toxic stew of sensationalism and xenophobia designed to appeal to racist instincts. We must resist a deportation policy which is out of control.

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On Being a Philadelphia Eagles Fan – posted 1/27/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on Super Bowl day 2/4/2018

January 27, 2018 Leave a comment

In honor of the Eagles Super Bowl appearance a week from tomorrow, I revised and updated an earlier piece written in 2013 about being a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Go Eagles! The piece was published under the title “Flying with the Eagles” 🦅

It is not easy being a Philadelphia Eagles fan while living in New England. You are definitely part of a minority group: a leper in Patriotland. I know there are some geographical transplants who successfully make the transition to rooting for the Patriots. This is harder when you come from Philadelphia and grew up as an Eagles fan.

Patriot fans are passionate but Eagles fans are rabid. I went to my first Eagles game in 1957 when I was 6 years old. The Eagles played the Detroit Lions at the old Shibe Park also known as Connie Mack Stadium. The Lions were led by legendary quarterback Bobby Layne.

The Eagles lost that day and I remember that I cried. It was the first of many losses to come that I witnessed. The Eagles are one of those NFL teams who have never won a Super Bowl, a fact never far from the minds of Eagles fans. In the Philadelphia mind, whatever our successes, we are still in sports hell.

I learned about football from my parents. Both were sports nuts. They were hardcore Philadelphia fans, especially the Eagles and Phillies. My dad got season’s tickets to Eagles’ games starting in the late 50’s. He and I used to park far away and schlep across the often freezing bridge to Franklin Field, the University of Pennsylvania stadium, where the Eagles played before they moved to the Vet.

I do want to mention the year 1960. There are some happy Philadelphia football memories. 1960 was the last time the Eagles won the NFL championship. It was in the era before Super Bowls. I was there with my dad, watching the Eagles beat the Packers 17-13.

Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, nicknamed the Dutchman, led the Eagles. He was the MVP in 1960 and an eventual Hall of Famer in 1971.

I went to Friends Central School with Van Brocklin’s daughter, Karen. Norm seemed like a really nice guy. When he came to school in the afternoon to pick up Karen, he went to the school playground and he threw the football around with us kids. How cool was that! He also punted to a small army of students who wanted to receive his kicks. Van Brocklin actually was the Eagles punter, something you would never see today. There are not any pro quarterbacks who double as punters now.

Van Brocklin was surrounded by some great players. I would mention Chuck Bednarik who played both ways, center and middle linebacker; Tommy McDonald,a small, speedy and gifted wide receiver; and tight end Pete Retzlaff, a 5 time pro bowler. The Packers had Bart Starr, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. Ray Nitschke anchored their defense. That was a great win with Buck Shaw besting Vince Lombardi. That 1960 Eagles team was the only team to defeat the Packers in a playoff game during Vince Lombardi’s tenure as Packers’ head coach.

However, as I noted, that championship win has not been duplicated. I do not think Patriot fans can understand the feelings of Eagles fans because of all the Patriots success. Patriot fans are spoiled rotten. It is not just the Patriots. In the last decade, Boston has had the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins all win as well. Before the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, it had been 25 years since any Philly team won a major sports championship. We are talking the 1983 Sixers with Doctor J and Moses Malone as the last winners. That qualifies as a sports drought.

After the 1960’s, I admit I lost interest in football for a long time. I was not at Franklin Field in 1968 when that famous episode in Eagles history happened: the booing of Santa Claus. It was December 15, 1968. The Eagles were 2-11 at the time. They had started the season 0-11. Still, 54,000 loyal Eagles fans showed up. The weather was miserable that day, snowing and sleeting. It was biting cold with a whipping wind chill. Fans had to clear their seats of three inches of snow and slush.

The half time show was supposed to feature Santa making an entrance on an ornate sleigh dragged by eight life-sized fiberglass reindeer. The sleigh float quickly got stuck in the field which had turned to muck. That necessitated the entrance of Santa by foot. The other problem was that the Santa who had been hired for that day was a no-show. Not clear whether Bad Santa was drunk but he did not appear. As a result, the Eagles entertainment director approached a young fan, Frank Olivo, who, in the holiday spirit, had dressed in a red corduroy Santa outfit. Olivo was recruited on the spot to step in and play Santa.

As the 50 piece brass band played “Here Comes Santa Claus”, Olivo entered the field between two columns of Eaglette cheerleaders who were dressed as elves. Olivo recalled what happened next:

“That’s when the booing started (when the band played “Here Comes Santa Claus”). At first, I was scared because it was so loud. But then I figured, hey, it was just good-natured teasing. I’m a Philadelphia fan, I knew what was what. I thought it was funny…
When I hit the end zone and the snow balls started, I was waving my finger at the crowd, saying, “You’re not getting anything for Christmas.”

Olivo says he was actually hit by several dozen snowballs. Maybe 100 were thrown. People joked that some of the people sitting in the upper deck were more accurate passers than the Eagles quarterback. Olivo commented that he was thankful for the snow. When the Eagles entertainment director asked if he wanted to play Santa the next year, he declined. “I told him, no way. If it doesn’t snow, they’ll probably throw beer bottles”.

I know the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl in 1981 under Dick Vermeil although ultimately they lost to the Raiders. I came back to football in the late 80’s/early 90’s. The names Randall Cunningham, Buddy Ryan and Reggie White come to mind. I remember the Fog Bowl in Chicago but not that much else about the team. I did go to a few games at the Vet.

The Vet itself deserves a bit of comment. It was famous for its concrete-like turf and its court in the basement. I never saw the Eagles Court. They were full service: starting in 1998, the Eagles had a court, a judge, and a jail at the stadium. Apparently, justice was dispensed quickly for drunk or unruly fans. Penalties included forcing offenders to give up season’s tickets, pay a $400 fine and sit in jail for the rest of the game. There is no Eagles Court at the Linc.

Philadelphia had so many lean years. All the losing seasons, bad coaches and bad teams are a blur to me. I do remember the name Joe Kuharich which I associate with multiple 2-12 years. Football got somewhat redefined during those years. A good year was not about making the playoffs. A good year would be defined as a year when the Eagles beat the Cowboys or Giants. To some extent, that is still true.

Then along came the Jeff Lurie/Andy Reid era. That changed the Eagles’ fortunes. From being a team of perennial losers, Reid turned the franchise around. Eagles’ fans became used to winning. For almost a decade, the Eagles were contenders and usually they were the best team in the NFC East.

While Eagles fans are typically critical of Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb for not winning a Super Bowl, by any rational standard, this was a special time in Eagles history. They never won so consistently for so long. They made it to 5 conference championship games and 1 Super Bowl.

In his early years, Donovan was a genuinely exciting player. Besides having a great arm, he was a running threat. Repeated injuries took their toll on him but he was a tough guy. I remember him playing in 2002 against the Cardinals and throwing 4 TDs while playing on a broken ankle. Eagles fans tend to remember all the wormburners and the alleged throwing up in the Super Bowl. That is very uncharitable.

My dad used to call me on the phone multiple times during Eagles games to report on developments. That went on through almost the whole Andy Reid time in Philly until my dad died. We had some wonderful times following those games and the team. I knew a lot without watching myself because of my dad’s reports.

I am not going to say much about the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. It could have gone the other way. It was a close game and the Eagles lost 24-21. That game was not Andy Reid’s finest hour.

One player I do want to mention – Brian Dawkins. For heart, grit, and for giving his all on the field, I would rate Dawk as possibly my favorite Eagle player of all time. I think that opinion is widely shared in Philadelphia.

Post-Andy Reid came the short-lived Chip Kelly era. Hailed as an offensive genius, Kelly had some success in his first two years. He helped develop Nick Foles into a fine quarterback. However, he made some devastatingly bad personnel moves, trading Lesean McCoy and letting Desean Jackson walk. He also let Jeremy Maclin go in free agency. Kelly became infamous for his autocratic tendencies and his lack of emotional intelligence. Jeff Lurie fired him before the end of the 2015 season.

Lurie then hired Doug Pederson, who had once been an Eagles quarterback and who was an Andy Reid assistant with the Chiefs. By any fair assessment, Pederson has done a remarkable job. Not only have the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl in his second year but they have a core of players who make them look very good for a decade to come. Here I have to mention Carson Wentz, a once in a generation player. What is not to love about that guy!

When Wentz was injured against the Rams, most observers gave the Eagles up for dead. Except the team never got that message. The defense, led by Fletcher Cox and Malcolm Jenkins, has been lights out. This team has a great vibe and resiliency, overcoming many injuries. While they are certainly big underdogs, that is nothing new. In the playoffs, they were underdogs against both the Falcons and the Vikings. The Eagles have embraced the underdog role, even wearing dog masks.

In the time since the Eagles have made it to the Super Bowl, I have heard much trash talk about how lunatic Eagles fans are. Supposedly, they are the worst-behaved fans in football. This has come from friends of mine who are Giants fans but I have also heard this from Boston TV news anchors. No doubt Giant and Patriot fans are angels but I would point to a Washington Post survey from a few years ago that looked at fan arrests at football games. Guess what? The Patriots averaged more arrests per season than the Eagles.The Giants averaged way more than either the Pats or the Eagles. No team fan base has cornered the market on bad behavior.

Before my dad died, he said, “Jonny, maybe you will get to see the Eagles win a Super Bowl.” Being fatalistic, I said, “Dad, I doubt it”. This team has made me a believer though.

Fly Eagles Fly!

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Daniel Ellsberg, the Doomsday Machine, and Thinking the Unthinkable – posted 1/15/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/24/2018

January 16, 2018 Leave a comment

Daniel Ellsberg is best known as the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers. In 1971, as a high government official, he photocopied thousands of pages of secret documents which showed successive administrations had lied to the public about the war in Vietnam. He shared the information with the New York Times and the Washington Post, becoming one of the most famous whistleblowers ever.

Unknown until recently was the fact that Ellsberg also photocopied thousands of pages about nuclear war planning. Ellsberg had had a long career at the highest levels of government before the Vietnam War. In his earlier incarnation, Ellsberg, a former Marine and protege of Henry Kissinger, worked as a Pentagon and White House consultant, drafting plans for nuclear war.

Ellsberg had passed the nuclear war planning documents onto his brother Harry for safe-keeping. Things were too hot for Ellsberg to keep the documents after the Pentagon Papers story broke. For taking the Pentagon Papers, the government charged Ellsberg under the Espionage Act of 1917. He faced a maximum prison sentence of 115 years.

Ellsberg’s brother first buried the papers in a cardboard box inside a green garbage bag in his compost pile. Worried that the FBI would come looking (which they did), Harry Ellsberg moved the papers to a hidden spot in his town trash dump in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

That summer, a near-hurricane, tropical storm Doria, hit Hastings-on-Hudson and caused the slope where the papers were buried to collapse down and over a roadway. Although much effort went into finding the papers, they were never found.

For 45 years, Ellsberg remained silent about the secret nuclear documents but now he has published a new book, The Doomsday Machine, which recounts his personal history around nuclear war planning as well as the evolution of his thinking.

The book is a revelation and it raises so many essential questions which have been very inadequately discussed about nuclear war, realistic appraisal of its consequences, and nuclear winter. Ellsberg places his discussion inside a history of the law of war since the early 20th century.

The book is appropriately named after the classic 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove. In the movie, an unhinged Air Force General, Jack D. Ripper, orders a nuclear first strike attack on the Soviet Union. The president contacts the Russian premier and finds out that they have created a doomsday device which will detonate automatically if there is any nuclear strike within the USSR.

The doomsday device cannot be disconnected or untriggered if there is an attack on the Russian homeland. The Russians advise that their device would result in a radioactive shroud which would wipe out all human and animal life and make the surface of the earth uninhabitable for 93 years.

The movie was so dead-on that Ellsberg saw it as a documentary.

A turning point for Ellsberg came in 1961, He had drafted a question for President Kennedy to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“If your plans for general (nuclear) war are carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?”

The answer came back in the form of a graph. The lowest number was 275 million. Within six months, after the nuclear attack, the number was 325 million.

Ellsberg drafted a follow-up question for the Joint Chiefs over the President’s signature. He asked for a total breakdown of global deaths from our attacks, including all countries that would be affected by fallout. The total death count was 600 million.

This was Ellsberg’s response:

“I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, this piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever…From that day on, I have had one overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.”

Ellsberg’s revulsion propelled him into a later career as an anti-nuclear weapons activist. He came to believe the military had not thought through the consequences of nuclear war, minimizing and rationalizing the acute harm to the whole planet. Or, as he put it, they were in the grip of institutionalized madness.

The late, great sociologist, C. Wright Mills, would have called it “crackpot realism”.

In the Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg revisits episodes from the Cold War. As a bureaucratic in-fighter, he played a critical role in getting the Kennedy Administration to limit nuclear war plans. At the time, the military targetted every city in both the USSR and China with a population over 25,000 with at least one nuclear weapon.

Ellsberg argued that destruction of China should not be automatic if a war was only with the Soviet Union. The military wanted to attack China even if they had no role in a conflict. Some of our military leaders like Air Force General Curtis LeMay acted exactly like characters from Dr, Strangelove. Ellsberg did get the Kennedy Administration to exclude automatic attack on China in the event of armed conflict with the Soviet Union.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ellsberg shows how close we came to an all-out nuclear war. It was far closer than the public knew. The world barely escaped an almost unimagineable cataclysm.

Ellsberg busts mythologies like the president with his nuclear football being the only one who can launch a nuclear war. The military has many contingencies in the event communications are cut off. He shows there has been a much more widespread delegation of authority to launch. The picture is not reassuring.

Among the dangers, Ellsberg worries that a nuclear weapons launch could be triggered by a false alarm, a terrorist action, initiative by unauthorized individuals or a rash miscalculation in a military escalation scenario.

Ellsberg ends the book with a chapter on dismantling the doomsday machine. He recognizes the enormous institutional resistance to such an idea but he makes an extremely compelling argument for how it could be done. He specifies achievable reforms. He thinks it is astonishing that people will put up with more than a non-zero chance of a nuclear holocaust.

Possibly the most unsettling aspect of the Trump presidency has been the threat escalation with North Korea, a nuclear weapons state. Trump has been far too casual about the risks inherent in a nuclear war. He should not be talking about totally destroying any country or playing nuclear chicken. That is the height of irresponsibility.

The idea that a nuclear war would be limited and would not cause absolutely unacceptable consequences is folly and insane. The blowback from multiple nuclear explosions could cause a catastrophic nuclear winter where the living would envy the dead.

Have current American nuclear war planners arrived at a figure of how many millions dead would be acceptable to them? The public has a right to know the answer to that question.

Ellsberg has performed his greatest public service yet with the publication of this book.

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White privilege is a wrong-headed construction – posted 1/7/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/14/2018

January 7, 2018 Leave a comment

This piece ran in the Concord Monitor on 1/14/2018 under the title “Poor is Poor”.

I read with interest John Meinhold’s opinion piece about white privilege that appeared in the Concord Monitor on December 14. Meinhold complained about the treatment of poor white folks in America. He argued that poor whites have been slurred as “white trash”. He noted the many white people who live in poverty and he questioned whether liberal Democrats have demonstrated caring about the struggles of poor whites.

I think Meinhold is right that poor whites have been denigrated and exploited. He is absolutely right that millions of white folks live in poverty. Since even before our nation’s founding, there have been masses of desperately poor white people living here. He is also right to complain that liberals, among others, have failed to sympathetically address poor whites.

Meinhold legitimately criticizes the idea that poor whites experience white privilege. I agree that is a wrong way to conceive of poor white folks’ experience.

When you are getting clobbered economically, you do not want to hear that you are somehow privileged.

I think it is a mistake to get into comparative victimology about whom has been exploited more. Poor whites and poor people of color have both been victimized by the 1%. Both compete for crumbs from the table. It is important to look at the different forms the exploitation has taken but I find the concept “white privilege” unhelpful to understanding.

The fact that black people experience compounded deprivations does not minimize the class oppression poor whites experience. It does not have to be one or the other and blacks and whites should not be set against each other as is the method of the alt-right and neo-nazis.

Those hate groups try to appeal to white people on the basis of their skin color. This is what the writer Kurt Vonnegut used to call a granfalloon, a group who affect a shared identity but whose mutual association is meaningless. Race haters are a discredited anachronism.

Both poor whites and people of color have been oppressed but the form of the oppression for each group is historically different.

Class remains the dirty, unacknowledged secret of American politics. We have been conditioned to think of America as a classless society, which is an absolute lie. Class remains a significant and often determinative fact of life.

Poor white people are not oppressed because of their skin color. Their oppression has everything to do with their class position in American society. In her book, White Trash, the historian, Nancy Isenberg, uncovers the untold story of how poor whites have been treated in America for the last 400 years.

Poor treatment is nothing new. While early American history typically highlights the Founding Fathers and their accomplishments, Isenberg explores colonial beginnings from the perspective of the poor. She shows that the great majority of early colonists were classified by the British as surplus population and expendable “rubbish”. The British hoped to use America as a dumping ground for populations they did not want.

Much public discussion of colonization in early America focuses on the quest for religious liberty. Isenberg shows that only a minority came to America for religious reasons. The British wanted to thin out their prisons and remove vagrants and beggars from their society and a forced one-way ticket to America was one way to do that.

Many poor whites came to America as indentured servants. They were forced to sign a contract by which they agreed to work for a certain number of years in exchange for the costly transportation to the new world. These contracts often lasted 4 to 7 years before they could be evaded. Other poor white immigrants came to escape debts that might have put them in prison. Many left tarnished reputations and economic failures behind hoping to make a fresh start in America.

While slavery brutally oppressed many hundreds of thousands in the late 18th century, very harsh labor conditions and early death awaited huge numbers of poor white migrants.

When Shays Rebellion, an uprising against aggressive tax and debt collection, occurred in western Massachusetts in 1786, Abigail Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson: “Ferment and commotion had brought forth an abundance of Rubbish”. Newpapers referred to the Shays insurgents as “ragamuffins of the earth”.

Isenberg traces the evolution of the terms “cracker” and “squatter”. She says the terms were shorthand for landless migrants. In early America, many poor whites disappeared into unsettled territory and would occupy land without a land title. She quotes a British officer on the subject of “crackers”: they were “great boasters”, a “lawless set of rascals on the frontier of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their place of abode”. They were recruited to be Indian fighters and they were known to be ruthless.

Isenberg says many poor whites in 19th century America lived as scavengers and vagrants. They worked as tenants and day laborers. They had no access to free soil or homesteads. They typically occupied poor quality land. Poor whites became known as “sandhillers” and “pineys” because they were consigned to the worst land.

By 1850, Isenberg says poor whites became a permanent class. She cites the infamous Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which had very negative implications for poor whites as well as for slaves. Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the majority opinion in Dred Scott, turned pedigree into a constitutional principle, finding that the Founders’ original intent was to classify members of society in terms of bloodlines and racial stock. Poor whites were way below the slaveholders, landed gentry, and aristocrats who ruled.

The term “white trash” gained widespread use in the 1850’s. Proslavery Southerners defended the low station of poor whites as natural and a result of biology. Southern elites saw the white poor as riff raff. They feared class equality and educational literacy of both blacks and poor whites.

Later in the 19th century, the term “redneck” came into wider use, followed later by “trailer trash” and “po’ white trash”. The racist actions of some poor whites during the civil rights movement gave these slurs more of a lease on life. These terms are still with us.

Over the last 100 years, pseudo-science has also played a role in justifying the mistreatment of poor whites. Eugenics divided America on the basis of good and bad blood. The rural South of poor illiterate whites were seen as the epitome of eugenic backwardness. Eugenics offered a convenient biological explanation to justify the terrible treatment of poor whites and people of color.

The exploitation of poor whites must never be used as an excuse for racism. For all people of conscience and awareness, given American history, the struggle against racism must always be a central struggle of the fight for justice. At the same time, attitudes that belittle poor whites are equally unacceptable.

I would say, to date, no political party has embraced poor whites or has advocated for them. Republican rhetoric masks their slavish devotion to corporate power and their 1% funders. I would acknowledge the Republicans have had some success in conning poor whites as they have tried to get the vote. The Democrats, on the other hand, have demonstrated cluelessness where poor whites are concerned. The Democrats have made a minimal effort to even seek that vote. Unfortunately, many liberals remain as committed to corporate power as the Republicans.

To have a chance to attract poor whites, the Democrats need to junk their corporate-friendly worldview and they need a populist message that critiques concentrated wealth and power. Too many liberal yuppies maintain an upper-middle class snobbery toward poor whites. It is no wonder the Democrats have earned a hostile reception.

Poor whites have long maintained a place of invisibility in America. Before anything can change, we all need to open our eyes and see them.

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The Puerto Rican Catastrophe – posted 12/25/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/27/2017

December 25, 2017 Leave a comment

It has now been over three months since Hurricane Maria and as we have gotten farther away from the storm, news about Puerto Rico has receded. Stories about what is happening on the island are rarer.

Lack of urgency is the best way to characterize the overall American response although the recovery task is admittedly herculean.

Sad to say but the recovery in Puerto Rico has been conducted at a turtle’s pace. The hurricane knocked out 100% of electricity, leaving 3.4 million people in the dark. So far about 65 percent of the island has regained power. This ranks as the longest power outage in American history. It is estimated that electricity will not be entirely restored until May.

This is not commensurate with the hurricane recovery effort in Texas or Florida. No site on the American homeland would have accepted such a slow hurricane response but Puerto Rico lacks the political strength to get a better result.

Along with electricity, access to clean water remains an unsolved problem for virtually all residents. This was a problem even before the hurricane. The Natural Resources Defense Council had issued a report last May showing that 99.5 percent of Puerto Ricans were served by water sources that violated the Safe Water Drinking Act. Contamination, failure to properly treat water and failure to conduct water testing were among the violations.

Since the hurricane, many Puerto Ricans have continued to report odorous, discolored and ill-tasting water flowing from their taps. Where bottled water is unavailable, water must be boiled or chlorine must be added for water to be drinkable.

An estimated 250,000 Puerto Ricans lost their homes in the hurricane. Hundreds of thousands have left the island since the storm, including 269,000 who have flown to Florida.

The government still does not know how many people died in the hurricane. Although the official government death count stood at 64, the Center for Investigative Journalism revealed at least 985 people died in the 40-day period after Hurricane Maria. A New York Times analysis found the death toll to be 1052.

It appears there has been a vast undercount. Two members of Congress, Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Ms) have requested a federal investigation by the Government Accounting Office. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has now ordered a recount of all hurricane deaths.

The new Republican tax bill signed by President Trump particularly harms Puerto Rico. It adds a 12.5 percent tax on profits derived from intellectual property, primarily high-end manufacturing like pharmaceuticals and medical devices. These manufacturing jobs are some of the best jobs on the island.

The tax was designed to make it more expensive for companies to operate outside the United States in “foreign” jurisdictions. For tax purposes, in a legal quirk, Puerto Rico is considered a “foreign” jurisdiction although in almost all other respects it is considered legally domestic.

Puerto Rico lobbied hard to get an exemption from the 12.5 percent tax but that effort failed. At a time when Puerto Rico desperately needs economic recovery, the new tax law will make it more expensive for manufacturers to operate there. It will very likely cost Puerto Rico many good jobs it can ill afford to lose.

In Puerto Rico, over 45 percent of people live in poverty (an income of under $24,000 for a family of four), a rate that is well over twice the rate for the United States. The median household income in Puerto Rico is $19,630. That is about half the median income in our poorest state of Mississippi.

To grasp the depth of the Puerto Rican tragedy, an appreciation of history is required. The history of Puerto Rico has been hidden. For many Americans, Puerto Rico is off the radar screen. It has been separated by geography, language, culture, and ethnicity.

Polls taken after Hurricane Maria indicate that barely 50 percent of our population know that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and that its people are U.S. citizens.

Puerto Rico had been a colony of Spain. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the United States took possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, paying Spain $20 million under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Puerto Rico was war booty and it became an American colony although it was euphemistically called a territory.

The early 20th century was an era of American imperial expansion in Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine in the background, the United States conducted a military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and a military occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. In 1917, the United States bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million. The acquisition of Puerto Rico was a legacy of colonialism.

The United States set up its own puppet government in Puerto Rico and established English as the official language even though few then knew the language. U.S. officials did not speak Spanish. The President appointed a succession of Anglo governors. No Puerto Rican became governor until 1948 and ynone was elected until 1952.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans gained full American citizenship through the Jones-Shafroth Act. Shortly after, Puerto Ricans were made subject to the military draft. More than 200,000 registered for the draft and 20,000 served in World War One. The Puerto Rican tradition of military service has continued to the present.

Puerto Rico gets no right to vote for president or for any federal office. It has no voting representative in Congress. Puerto Ricans who leave the island and go to Florida or other parts of the United States can have their votes counted in federal and state elections.

Underlying Puerto Rico’s disparate and unequal treatment is Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, commonly known as the “Territorial Clause”. The Clause reads:

“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”

The Territorial Clause maintains Puerto Rico’s colonial status as it is classified as a territory. In assessing its debt crisis and its post-hurricane issues, it must be emphasized that Puerto Rico has had no right to self-determination. It has been essentially a plaything of the American empire. The island’s economic powerlessness is rooted in this colonial structure. The Territorial Clause controls Puerto Rico’s destiny and preempts local authority.

I would point out that there is deep division among Puerto Ricans about their self-determination. During the 20th century, there was an active movement for Puerto Rican independence. 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, a legendary leader of the independence movement.

Little is now remembered about the independence movement. In 1947, the U.S. government passed a law that made it illegal for Puerto Ricans to utter a word, sing a song or whistle a tune against the United States or in favor of independence. In 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way into Blair House where President Truman was staying. Later in 1954, four members of the nationalist party, among them Lolita Lebron, staged an attack on Congress, wounding five members. President Jimmy Carter granted the four clemency in 1979 after they all served long prison terms.

It remains unclear whether Puerto Ricans prefer statehood or independence. Last June there was a plebiscite where voters chose statehood although only 23% of eligible voters cast ballots. Whether Puerto Rico becomes a state ultimately depends on Congress.

Puerto Ricans are unique in being citizens while being considered foreigners, a contradiction at the core of their identity.

When President Trump went to Puerto Rico after the hurricane, he gave himself a “10” out of 10 for hurricane response. He had previously graded himself an A+. He said, “You know what? This is not a real catastrophe. This is not like Katrina.” He famously lobbed paper towels at a crowd.

Considering Puerto Rico’s dire straits, the Administration’s casual response merits no accolades. It is now up to Congress to act. So much more needs to be done.

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Ways of Being Racist – posted 12/10/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on12/17/2017

December 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Racism is difficult to talk about. The label gets tossed and too often genuine conversation ends. Just mention of the word has been a showstopper. Partisans retreat to their respective corners, back to entrenched positions.

Considering the centrality of race in American life. I think we need a better understanding of how racism has operated. For all the use of the word as a label, racism is usually seen as simply bad ideas.

I would suggest that view is wrong-headed and superficial. How we in America have been racist has changed dramatically since the 18th century. If we look at racism historically, we can gain insight into how we have arrived at our present race predicament.

Racism in America did not mysteriously materialize out of the vast reservoirs of human ignorance and hate. It came out of the need to justify slavery. The beneficiaries of slavery and later Jim Crow segregation produced racist ideas because they wanted to defend themselves intellectually. Defending racism was in their material self-interest and it gave them a way to deflect from their criminal behavior.

In his book, Stamped From the Beginning, Professor Ibram X. Kendi presents a comprehensive overview of how racist ideas have changed over time. The arguments used to justify racism in early America are quite different than what we hear now.

In the 17th and 18th century, racists relied on theological and climate justification. Kendi shows how early preachers drew on the Bible, particularly Genesis, which said that black people were the children of Ham, the son of Noah, and that they were singled out to be black as the result of Noah’s curse. Here slavery was seen as a curse for sins and depraved behavior.

Climate theorists believed that black people were a product of hot climate and that they could literally turn white if they moved into cooler climate. The belief was that placed in the proper cold climate, blacks would adopt European culture, whiten their skin color and grow straight hair.

In early America, there was a nature versus nurture debate about black people. Racists blamed black people for allegedly criminal behavior and disagreed about whether blacks were inherently inferior or whether the race could be improved. Scholars debated whether blacks were a different species as racist scientists conceived of blacks as lesser animals and Blackness was seen as a physiological abnormality.

Preachers like Cotton Mather urged Africans to become obedient slaves. By obeying Mather said slaves “souls will be washed white in the blood of the lamb”. If slaves failed to be orderly servants, then Mather said they would forever welter “under intolerable blows and wounds from the Devil, their overseer”.

Blackness was associated with the Devil and whiteness became the standard of beauty. During the Salem witch trials, religious leaders preached endlessly about black devils. Accused witches were made to confess that black devils made them sign his book.

There was some disagreement among slaveholders about whether slaves could be Christians. Some slaveholders worried about seeing their slaves in heaven.

From 1776 to 1865 and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, slavery was business as usual in much of the country. Slavery was legal in all 13 colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence.

In early America, racist ideas were supported by racist laws. While Black Codes are mostly associated with the period after the Civil War, they date back to colonial America. Blacks were not allowed to vote, gather in groups for worship or learn to read and write.

Justifications for racist ideas changed in the 19th century. Racist scholars measured anatomy and the size of human skulls and they evolved the pseudo-science of phrenology. The founder of anthropology in the United States, Dr. Samuel Morton, a phrenologist, found Caucasian skulls to be larger than other races. Morton found that larger skulls equated with larger intellect.

Pseudo-science played a larger role in 19th century racism. One prominent Southern surgeon, Dr. Josiah Nott, owner of nine slaves, advanced a polygenesist theory that claimed humanity and different races originated from different lineages. Charles Darwin later took issue with Nott who had attacked evolutionary theory.

Racist ideas in the late 19th century evolved further with the development of eugenics. Eugenicists tried to prove that personality and mental traits were inherited and superior racial groups inherited superior traits.

Eugenicists were focused on promoting the idea of the purity of the white race. Kendi mentions a book published in 1916, The Passing of the Great Race, by a New York lawyer, Madison Grant. Grant had constructed a racial-ethnic ladder with Nordics (his term for Anglo-Saxons) at the top and Jews, Italians, the Irish, Russians and all non-whites on the lower rungs.

Grant theorized that world history was about the rising and falling of civilizations based on the amount of Nordic blood in each nation. Grant’s book later influenced Adolf Hitler. Hitler thanked Grant, calling his book “my Bible”.

These early eugenics theorists like Madison Grant were forerunners of newer justifiers of inequality like Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray who in 1994 produced The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Hernnstein and Murray argued that there was a cognitive difference between blacks and whites although they acknowledged some role for environment.

Hernnstein and Murray essentially saw social inequality as a result of biology. Thinking like this promoted the view that disparities around race were inherent.

More recently, the ideology of colorblindness has held sway. The assumption has been that the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible without regard to race. The problem is this ideology ignores 250 years of African American history.

Kendi shows there has been a historical struggle around how blame has been assigned for the discrimination against non-white people. Blaming the victim of discrimination has been a long-term historical pattern. As Kendi writes:

“When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for the oppression.”

From the perspective of 2017, the historical succession of racist ideas demonstrate both their stupidity and their absurdity. It seems almost unbelievable that so recently so many believed such obviously wrong ideas. Yet we live in an era when white supremacy is trying to make yet one more comeback.

It is past time that we overcome any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another group.

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