Monthly Archives: April 2017
In the May 1, 2017 issue of The New Yorker magazine, its editor David Remnick gives us an excellent summary of Trump’s first hundred days. “For most people,” Remnick says, “the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this. His presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite. The hundred-day marker is never an entirely reliable indicator of a four-year term, but it’s worth remembering that Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama were among those who came to office at a moment of national crisis and had the discipline, the preparation, and the rigor to set an entirely new course. Impulsive, egocentric, and mendacious, Trump has, in the same span, set fire to the integrity of his office.
Trump has never gone out of his way to conceal the essence of his relationship to the truth. In 1980, when he was about to announce plans to build Trump Tower, a 58-story edifice on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, he coached his architect before meeting with a group of reporters. ‘Give them the old Trump bullshit. Tell them it’s going to be a million square feet, 68 stories.’ This is the brand Trump has created for himself – that of an unprincipled, cocky, value-free con who’ll insult, stiff, or betray anyone to achieve his purposes. But what was once a parochial amusement is now a national and global peril. Trump flouts truth and liberal values so brazenly that he undermines the country he’s been elected to serve and the stability he’s pledged to ensure. His bluster creates a generalized anxiety such that the president of the United States appears scarcely more reliable than any of the world’s autocrats. Trump thinks out loud, and is incapable of reflection. He’s unserious, unfocussed, and, at times, it seems, unhinged. When journalists are invited to the Oval Office to ask about infrastructure, he talks about how Bill O’Reilly, late of Fox News, is a ‘good person,’ blameless, like him, in matters of sexual harassment. A reporter asks about the missile attack on Syria, and he feeds her a self-satisfied description of how he informed his Chinese guests at Mar-a-Lago of the strike over ‘the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.’ Little about this presidency remains a secret for long. The reporters who cover the White House say that, despite their persistent concerns about Trump’s attempts to marginalize the media, they’re flooded with information. Everyone leaks on everyone else. Rather than demand discipline around him, Trump sits back and watches the results on cable news. A team of rivals? No – a new form of reality entertainment: ‘The Circular Firing Squad.’
During his first hundred days in office, Trump hasn’t done away with populist rhetoric, but he’s acted almost entirely as a plutocrat. His cabinet and cast of advisers are stocked with multimillionaires and billionaires. His positions on health care, tax reform, and financial regulation are of greatest appeal to the super-wealthy. The early days of his administration are marked most indelibly by Trump’s attempted ban of travelers from six Muslim countries, which failed in the courts, and the effort to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, which imploded in the House of Representatives. Proposals for domestic initiatives are largely confined to reversals of achievements of the Obama era: an expansion of the prison at Guantánamo, easing of Dodd-Frank financial regulations, reversal of plans to save wetlands and protect waterways from coal waste and executive orders banning gun sales to the mentally ill and protecting L.G.B.T. federal employees from discrimination. Because of the lavish travel habits of his family, Trump is shaping up to be the most expensive executive in history to guard. At the same time, his budget proposals would, if passed in Congress, cut the funding of after-school programs, rental-assistance programs, the Community Development Block Grant program, legal assistance for the poor, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Trump emerged from neither a log cabin nor the contemporary meritocracy. He inherited his father’s outer-borough real-estate empire – a considerable enterprise distinguished by racist federal-housing violations – and brought it to Manhattan, entering a world of contractors, casino operators, Roy Cohn, professional-wrestling stars, Rupert Murdoch, multiple bankruptcies, tabloid divorces, Mar-a-Lago golf tournaments, and reality television. He had no real civic presence in New York, and though wealthy, gave almost nothing to charity. He had no close friends. He worked, played golf, and spent long hours watching TV, his misogyny and low character always manifest. Insofar as he had political opinions, they were inconsistent and mainly another form of performance art, part of his talk-show patter. His contributions to political campaigns were unrelated to conviction; he gave solely to curry favor with those who could do his business some good. He believed in nothing.
By the mid-‘90s, Trump’s investment prospects had foundered. Banks cut him off. He turned to increasingly dubious sources of credit and branding opportunities at home and abroad. A typical deal, involving a hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, included as partners an Azerbaijani family distinguished for its corruption and its connections to Iranians who worked as a profit front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. There’s little mystery as to why Trump’s broken with custom, refusing to release his tax returns. They record his colossal tax breaks, associations, deals, and net worth. As Trump struggled in business, he made a deal with NBC to star in ‘The Apprentice,’ which featured him for fourteen seasons in a role of corporate dominance. It was there that he honed his peculiar showmanship and connected to a mass audience well beyond New York City, perfecting the persona that became the core of his presidential campaign: the billionaire populist. Now he’s discovered that it’s far more difficult to manage the realities of national politics than a TV set. In the transitional period between Election Day and the inauguration, Obama’s aides were told that Trump, who has the attention span of a hummingbird, wouldn’t read reports of any depth; he prefers one- or two-page summaries, pictures, and graphics. Obama met with Trump once and talked with him on the telephone ten times. The discussions did little to change Obama’s mind that Trump was ‘uniquely unqualified’ to be president, his grasp of issues rudimentary at best.
In his inaugural speech, Trump furiously rebuked the elected officials seated behind him and the international order they serve. Using the language of populist demagogues, from Huey Long to George Wallace to Silvio Berlusconi, the new president implied that he, the Leader, was in perfect communion with the People, and that together they’d repair the landscape of ‘American carnage.’ As George W. Bush was leaving the grandstand, according to New York magazine, he said, ‘That was some weird shit.’
By all accounts, the West Wing has become a battlefield of opposing factions. The most influential of them is also the only one with a guarantee of permanence – the Family, particularly Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. (His sons Eric and Donald, Jr., have remained in New York to run the family business. Despite his responsibility to put country before personal profit, the president refuses to divest from it.) Kushner has no relevant experience in foreign or domestic policy, but has been tasked with forging a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, steering U.S. relations with China and Mexico, reorganizing the federal government, and helping to lead the fight against the epidemic of opioid use. It’s hard to know if, as an executive, he’s in charge of everything or of nothing. But, as a counselor, he’s clearly powerful enough to whisper in his father-in-law’s ear and diminish the prospects of rival counselors, including those of the administration’s most lurid white nationalist, Steve Bannon. Ivanka Trump’s duties are gauzier than her husband’s, but they seem to relate to getting her father to go easier on L.G.B.T. and women’s-rights issues and calming his temper. The way that Trump’s established his family members in positions of power and profit is redolent of tin-pot dictatorships. He may waver on matters of ideology, but his commitment to the family firm is unshakable and resists ethical norms. The conflicts and the privileges are shameless, the potential revenues immense. On the day the Trump family hosted Xi Jinping in Palm Beach, the Chinese government extended trademarks to Ivanka’s businesses so she could sell her shoes and handbags to the vast market from Harbin to Guangzhou.
Trump is wary of expertise. During the campaign, he expressed his distrust of scientists, military strategists, university professors, diplomats, and intelligence officers. He filled the executive branch accordingly, appointing a climate-change denier as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; a Secretary of Education who, during her confirmation hearing, displayed stunning ignorance of public education; an Energy Secretary who previously called for closing the Department of Energy; a United Nations Ambassador whose international experience is limited to trade missions for the state of South Carolina; and a national-security adviser who trafficked in Islamophobic conspiracy theories until, three weeks into the job, he was forced to resign because he lied to Vice-President Pence about his ties to the Russian government. Trump has left open hundreds of important positions in government, largely because he sees no value in them. ‘A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,’ he’s said. Among the many federal bureaucracies now languishing with empty offices are the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Defense. It’s the generals who are the authoritative voices in Trump’s administration. To a president whose idea of a strategic move is to ‘bomb the shit out of’ ISIS, they’re the ones who have to make the case for international law, the efficacy of NATO, the immorality of torture, and the inadvisability of using the rhetoric of ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ At the same time, the pace of bombing in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen appears to have increased, and tensions with Iran, Russia, and North Korea have intensified. Trump, an erratic and impulsive spokesman for his own policy, needs competent civilian advisers, if only as a counterweight to the military point of view and his own self-admiring caprices.
The Trump presidency represents an angry assault on the advances of groups of people who’ve experienced profound, if fitful, empowerment over the past half century. The Trumpian rebellion against liberal democracy isn’t a local event; it’s part of a disturbing global trend. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later, the democratic movement grew and liberalism advanced, and not only in eastern and central Europe. During the course of thirty years, the number of democracies in the world expanded from thirty to roughly a hundred. But since 2000, nation-states of major consequence – Russia, Hungary, Thailand, and the Philippines among them – have gone in the opposite, authoritarian direction. India, Indonesia, and Great Britain have become more nationalistic. In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, is polling credibly in a presidential campaign guided by two longtime fascist associates. The prestige and the efficacy of democracy itself is in question. The stakes of this anti-democratic wave can’t be overestimated. Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that researches global trends in political liberty, has identified an eleven-year decline in democracies around the globe and now issues a list of ‘countries to watch’ – nations that ‘may be approaching important turning points in their democratic trajectory.’ The ones that most concern Freedom House include South Africa, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, and the United States.
Pushing back against Trumpism won’t be easy. The president isn’t finished with his efforts to repeal Obamacare in a way that would deprive millions of people of their health insurance; he isn’t going to relax his effort to enact hard-line immigration restrictions; and he isn’t through trying to dismantle legislative and international efforts to rescue an environment that’s already suffering the grievous effects of climate change. But there are signs that doomsayers of democratic values will be proved wrong. Hope can be found in the extraordinary crowds at the many women’s marches across the country on the day after the inauguration; in the recent marches in support of science and a more compassionate, reasonable immigration policy; in the earnest work of the courts that have blocked the ‘Muslim ban’ and of various senators and House members in both parties who, unlike Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, have refused to put cynicism and expedience before integrity; in the exemplary investigative journalism being done by traditional and new media outlets; in the performance of anti-Trump candidates in recent congressional races in Kansas and Georgia.
The clownish veneer of Trumpism conceals its true danger. Trump’s way of lying isn’t a joke; it’s a strategy, a way of clouding our capacity to think. Our task isn’t just to recognize this presidency for the emergency it is and resist its assault on the principles of reality and the values of liberal democracy, but to devise a future, to debate, to hear one another, to organize, and to preserve and revive precious things.”
My only quibble with Remnick, and it’s a pretty big one, is that the failures of “liberalism” are what allowed Trump – or someone like him – to be elected. To succeed in the future, we’ll have to go way beyond elite liberal concessions to the masses – we’ll have to completely re-envision our democracy (actually create one) and guarantee a minimal living, a good education, health care, freedom, and security to everyone. That last item – “security” – is a big one, including freedom from harassment, discrimination, and maiming and murder by the police; a foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than the use of force and including negotiating the end of nuclear weapons; and safeguarding the environment, including addressing climate change (eliminating the use of fossil fuels, except to create “green” alternatives). A tall order? Yes. But necessary to avoid Trump-like demagogues – and the destruction of the human race – in the future.
William C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi have an incisive article “The Anarchism of Blackness” in the current issue of “Roar” magazine (roarmag.org), headlined: “The Democratic Party has led Black America down a dead end. The sooner we begin to understand that, the more realistically we’ll be able to organize against fascism.” The authors believe that “in the coming months and years, left and left-leaning constituencies in the United States will need to make clear distinctions between actual and potentially counterproductive symbolic progress.” They also think the Black liberation struggle has and will provide “a blueprint for transformative social change,” thanks to “its positioning as an inherently radical social formation.”
Under the heading “The Failings of American Liberalism,” the authors write, “The United States’ self-ascribed democratic traits have long been filtered through oppressive forms deemed necessary by the state and a capitalist system benefiting only a few. For many years now, American liberalism has been a bitter disappointment to many who somehow maintained faith in the two-party system. The Democratic Party has seemingly been the only choice for those who consider themselves progressives working for a better society, but the notion that social inequities will be solved through the electoral process was always naïve at best. The entrails of this system are lined with the far-right fascism currently rising and long bubbling under the façade of liberal democracy at the expense of non-whites in a white supremacist society. A system predicated on the over-emphasis of ‘order’ and ‘security’ is primed for authoritarianism.
Over time, the genocide, enslavement, and other forms of violence present at this nation’s birth have been displaced and restructured by more insidious and invisible modalities of community destruction facilitated by liberalism like the reservation, the prison system, and austerity policies. Over the past few decades, the United States has seen a shift in liberal politics leaving the Democratic Party in a completely compromised position. Instead of moving left, the Democratic Party pandered to the right, facilitating a conservative shift. Liberal support for the Iraq War, post-9/11 domestic policy, and the foreign policy extensions of the War on Terror have led to the current administration led by a plutocratic tyrant hell-bent on the destruction of vulnerable populations. Despite the optics of change and the promises of a new day and the moral victories of ‘going high,’ an old sun is rising on a white horizon.
Societal fascism describes the process and political logic of state formation wherein entire populations are either excluded or ejected from the social contract. They’re excluded pre-contractually because they’ve never been part of the social contract and never will be; or they’re ejected from a contract they were previously a part of. Black Americans are the former: residents in a settler colony predicated on the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans; residents in the United States, as opposed to citizens of. Despite a constitution laden with European Enlightenment values and a document of independence declaring egalitarianism and inalienable rights as the law of the land, Black existence was that of private property. The Black American condition is perpetual relegation to the afterlife of slavery as long as the United States continues to exist as an ongoing settler project. Black exclusion from the social contract is existence within a heavily surveilled and heavily regulated state of subjection.
Whiteness has long sought to grapple with the existential threat posed by Black freedom. Black repatriation to Africa was the solution for slaveholders concerned that the presence of free Blacks would inspire enslaved Blacks to revolt and worried that Black families would burden state welfare systems and that interracial labor competition would ultimately compromise wages for white workers. The ‘Back to Africa’ project was subsequently taken up by Black thinkers like Marcus Garvey in the late-19th and early-20th centuries following the failures of Reconstruction in the South, the first attempt to meaningfully extend citizenship to newly emancipated Blacks and protect them from white supremacist violence, and also the social and political disillusionment of Blacks who had migrated to northern states.
Since then progress has been secured by Black people’s mobilization rather than by any political party. We’re the ones who have achieved much of the progress that’s changed the nation for the better for everyone. Our organization can be as effective now as it has been in the past, serving every locality and community based on their needs and determinations. This can be achieved through disassociating ourselves from party politics that fail to serve us.
While bound to the laws of the land, Black America can be understood as an extra-state entity because of Black exclusion from the liberal social contract. Due to this extra-state location, Blackness is in many ways anarchistic. African-Americans, as an ethno-social identity comprised of descendants from enslaved Africans, have innovated new cultures and social organizations and have engaged in anarchistic resistances since our very arrival in the Americas. From slave ship and plantation rebellions, to the creation of maroon societies in the American South, to Harriet Tubman’s removal of enslaved peoples from the custody of their owners, to post-Emancipation labor and prison camps, to combatting the historic (and present) collusion between state law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, assertions of Black personhood, humanity and liberation have necessarily called into question both the foundations and legitimacy of the American state.
Liberalism can’t defeat fascism; it can only engage it through symbolic political rigmarole. The triteness of electoral politics that’s been superimposed onto Black life in the United States positions Black people as a mule for much of this nation’s social progression. Our hyper-visible struggle is a fight for all people’s freedom, and we die only to realize that everything gained can be reversed with the quick flick of a pen. While liberalism takes up the burden of protecting ‘free speech’ and the rights of those who would annihilate non-whites, Black people and other people of color assume all the risks and harms. The symbolic battles the Democratic Party and its liberal constituents engage in pose direct existential threats to Black people because they protect esteemed ideals of a constitution that has never guaranteed Black people safety or security. The current fascist moment is neither ideologically new nor temporally surprising; it’s an inevitability.
The mechanisms working against us deal death and destruction in countless numbers across the non-Western world while turning domestic Black and Brown neighborhoods into proxies for how to treat sub-citizen ‘others.’ The militarization of police, border regimes, stop-and-frisk, and ICE are clear examples of how the state regards the communities it targets and brutalizes. At the very least, a conversation on self-defense that doesn’t mistreat our survival as a form of violence is sorely needed. It would be even better if the conversation normalized anti-fascist organizing that prepared people for the possibility of a fight, instead of simply hoping that day never comes and respectably tut-tutting about those currently fighting in the streets.
Everyone has a stake in the fight against fascism. It can’t be defeated with bargaining, petitioning, pleading, ‘civilized’ dialogue, or any other mode of response we were taught was best. Fascists have no respect for ‘othered’ humanities. Regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, religion, physical ability, or nationality, there’s a place for each of us in this struggle. We’re always fighting against the odds because there’s no respite in a perpetually abusive state. It can only function through this abuse, so we can only prevail through organizing grounded in radical love and solidarity. This solidarity must prioritize accountability, and it must be authentic. Strategic organizing of this sort, organizing where we understand the inextricable linkedness of our respective struggles, is our means of bolstering the makings of a cohesive left in the United States. We no longer have time to waste on dogma, sectarianism, prejudice, and incoherence.
The sooner Black America in particular begins to understand our position as an inherently anarchistic element of the United States, the more realistically we’ll be able to organize. A better society has to be written through our inalienable self-determinations, and that will only happen when we realize that we are holding the pen.
William C. Anderson is a freelance writer, published by The Guardian, Pitchfork, Truthout, and at the Praxis Center for Kalamazoo College, where he’s a contributing editor covering race, class and immigration.
Zoé Samudzi is a Black feminist writer and PhD student in Medical Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her current research is focused on critical race theory and biomedicalization.
When “Democracy Now” interviewed two global feminists – Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues, and Congolese activist Christine Deschryver – on 2-14-17, Ensler said that “watching Trump and the people he surrounds himself with, we’re seeing the escalation of rape culture, a predatory mindset.” She added that if so many Americans “felt OK electing a self-confessed sexual assaulter” whose principal advisor, Steve Bannon, “is known to have beaten his wife, we know we haven’t really gotten to the root of rape culture in America. That predatory mindset is affecting everything. We’re gutting regulations on air, on water, and on the earth. We’re escalating extraction. We’re seeing a disparaging of immigrants. This is all part of a predatory mindset – one person in power who does what he wants without the consent of the people around him – exactly what rape culture is. You seize people’s bodies, you take them against their will, and you do whatever you want to them. We bomb Iraqis and destroy people in countries around the world, and then refuse to give them admission and safety.”
On the possibility of Trump signing an executive order that would deregulate conflict minerals, Deschryver said such an order would bring the Democratic Republic of Congo “back 20 years, legitimating all the perpetrators and rapes, and strengthening Central African dictators who want to resume plundering Congo, along with multinational corporations.” Ensler compared this process with the “way oil companies are using state violence in Standing Rock. She then described the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration as “an unbelievable outpouring of women demanding, speaking up for, and cherishing and knowing what their rights are. What did Trump do a day later? He destroyed reproductive rights and the support of NGOs who were offering a discussion about abortion around the world. That was his cynical, violent response to 5 million women and men rising around the world. And that is rape culture. It was like, ‘Really? You think you’re going to have power? Watch what I’m going to do the next day.’ So many of these executive orders are violent acts saying in no uncertain terms, ‘I do what I want, regardless of your needs, regardless of what you want in your body or your life, and I’m going to continue to do that.’”
Deschryver said this is why “grassroots women from all over the world have to be leaders, protecting Mother Nature, because we are Her.” At Deschryver’s project, City of Joy, in Bukavu, eastern Congo, “we receive 90 young women to heal their bodies and minds, and we train them to be leaders. Most of them were raped by militias, by the police, by their partners. And they’re all survivors of atrocities. They stay there for six months, transforming their pain to power. After that, some of them go to our farm to transform pain to planting. There we live with Mother Nature and give back to Her. I think City of Joy has to be an example for the whole world, because right now I think the grassroots women are the ones who’ve paid the most for everything that’s happened. Look in Dakota. Look in Congo, everywhere.” To read more about City of Joy, go to http://drc.vday.org/about-city-of-joy/
When Amy Goodman noted that Steve Bannon had called progressive women, quote, “a bunch of dykes,” Ensler said, “That doesn’t surprise me at all. I think this entire cabal are men who are terrified of women on every level, particularly powerful women. We only have to look at the censoring of Elizabeth Warren to understand that. They’re terrified of black people. They’re terrified of immigrants. They’re terrified of indigenous people. They are terrified of anybody who isn’t a white man or a white man billionaire or white man corporate. In many ways, this is the last major gasp of the patriarchal dragon, and last gasps can be deadly. But they’re not going to move us back to the past. Women aren’t going to stand for having rights being taken away. African Americans aren’t going to stand for it. Immigrants aren’t going to stand for it. We’re too far out to go back in. So now what we’ve got to do is go much further than we’ve ever gone before.”
The women then looked at the recent silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who tried to read into the Senate record a 1986 letter written by Coretta Scott King, opposing attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions when he was nominated for a federal judgeship. First, Amy Goodman noted that “Senator Warren was then prohibited from speaking for the remainder of the debate, which was hours-long. Male senators, her Democratic allies, like Senator Sanders, Senator Sherrod Brown, and Senator Merkley, were allowed to read King’s letter without rebuke. What’s also interesting is that when Coretta Scott King sent her testimony 30 years ago to the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Strom Thurmond, expecting it was going to be entered into the Congressional Record, he never entered it.”
“Right,” agreed Ensler. “The only way Coretta Scott King’s letter could be entered was through the voice of white men. I think it was really disturbing that happened, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Warren to take her seat. It was an incredibly infantilizing moment, his attempt to take a woman of such stature and voice and power and reduce her to nothing. We’re not going to take our seats. That’s not going to happen now. The attempt by this administration to reduce women, to make women feel small, to feel that they don’t exist, to embarrass and shame them, won’t work. We’re past that point. As terrible as all this is, what’s really exciting is to see what this is evoking in people all across this country and around the world. We’re not only going to persist, we are rising up. That’s what we’re seeing this year in One Billion Rising, a global campaign through dance and resistance to fight all the forms of violence, whether it be the violence of racism or climate change or economic deprivations or workers’ rights. We’re seeing more risings this year across the planet, more militant risings, more joyful risings, more fierce risings, more specific and determined risings, because what we’re all feeling is not only are we going to not give up on the rights we have, but this is an opportunity to reformulate our progressive world into a much stronger, more unified, more visionary, more prophetic movement than we’ve ever had before and to really understand that the struggle for antiracism, the struggle against the destruction of the Earth, the struggle for women, the struggle against oppression – these are all one struggle that we’re part of. I’m very encouraged, in the little towns and places all across America, to see people in Texas standing up for Muslims, to see artists doing beautiful posters. There’s more creativity, more outpouring that’s going on right now. I want to finish by saying I think the resistance is the creation. As we’re resisting, we’re beginning to not only mobilize ourselves into a unified force, we’re actually creating the vision of the world we want.” For more on One Billion Rising, go to http://www.onebillionrising.org
“After 15 years of our movement, we were able to put out a call that was an invitation for women and men to rise and dance and resist violence against women across the planet. And that call was taken up, with each community making it their own. Each community took it to the places they wanted to take it and created this global solidarity and force of energy that really made violence against women central stage. Five years ago, we put out this global invitation for women to rise and dance at the places where they wanted to see justice, where they wanted to see violence end. It was massive, and every year, it’s grown and grown. It’s now in 200 countries. Twenty-two states in India are rising, 131 cities in Germany, 90 cities in Poland. We’re seeing all kinds of people – trans women, workers, indigenous people – everyone’s beginning to use this idea of dance resistance, because dance is so powerful. People are being traumatized every day by these executive orders, by horrible statements, by hateful, aggressive reactions. And I think one of the things we have to be very careful about is that we don’t get hooked on a cycle of trauma, retrauma, trauma, retrauma. We have to also come into our bodies and dance and feel our sexuality and feel our joy and feel our energy, because that will give us the fuel to keep fighting and keep resisting and keep creating the way we want to go.”
Deschryver added, “I think Eve had the idea when she was visiting Congo, and she saw all the raped women dancing. That’s what we do in Africa. It’s a way to express our feelings. We have One Billion Rising in Congo, and we rise also for Mother Earth, because Congo is the second lung of humanity. Without the forests in Congo, I think there is no more life all over the world. And we rise also for and with the women. All over DRC they use the word ‘rising’ in English. Every time they see something they disagree with, it’s like, ‘OK, we will rise for this.’”
Ensler: “In New York, on February 14th, we’re having an Artistic Uprising for Revolutionary Love. We’ve joined forces with a wonderful woman named Valarie Kaur and Reverend Barber, who have launched this campaign called Revolutionary Love. And we’ll be rising in Washington Square Park from 6:00 to 9:00. There are 25 amazing artists, a gospel choir, drummers, singers, and poets. And we really want everyone to come, because, really, we need art more than we know. We only have to look to Melissa McCarthy, her brilliant portrayal of Sean Spicer, and see the way artists and irony are changing consciousness.”
A few days ago, Noam Chomsky, longtime political activist and social critic, was interviewed on “Democracy Now,” and asked to sum up the first few months of the Trump regime. He said that “anything that can be of assistance to ordinary people” is being “decimated, while anything that adds to wealth and power or that increases the use of force is being carried forward.” Meanwhile, the two most important issues – climate change and the threat of nuclear war – on which our survival depend are being largely ignored. The media are largely taking the bait of daily Trumpist distractions, including the question of whether the Russians interfered in the 2016 US election. “Half the world is cracking up in laughter,” Chomsky said about this, since “the United States doesn’t just interfere in elections. It overthrows governments it doesn’t like.” Even in Russia, the US government got “their man Yeltsin in.” Chomsky understands that “Democratic Party managers want to try to find some blame for the way they utterly mishandled the election and blew a perfect opportunity to win. But that’s hardly a justification for allowing the Trump and right-wing Republican policies to slide by quietly, many of them not only harmful to the population, but extremely destructive, like the climate change policies.”
Chomsky finds the new hostility toward Russia disheartening, since lessening tensions with that country would be “a step forward. NATO maneuvers are taking place hundreds of yards from the Russian border, and Russian jet planes are buzzing American planes. This could get out of hand very easily. Both sides, meanwhile, are building up their military forces, and the US is establishing an anti-ballistic missile installation near the Russian border, allegedly to protect Europe from nonexistent Iranian missiles, a first strike threat. These are serious issues. People like William Perry, who has a distinguished career and is a nuclear strategist and is no alarmist, are saying that this is one of the worst moments of the Cold War. And we should bear in mind it’s the Russian border. It’s not the Mexican border. There are no Warsaw Pact maneuvers going on in Mexico.”
When asked about Trump’s policies with regard to North Korea, Chomsky noted, that North Korea didn’t seriously pursue a nuclear weapons program till after George W. Bush scuttled an agreement Clinton had negotiated according to which “North Korea would terminate its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and the U.S. would reduce hostile acts. I mean, you can say it’s the worst regime in history, but they’ve been following a pretty rational tit-for-tat policy. And why are they developing nuclear weapons? I mean, the economy is in bad shape. They could certainly use the resources. Everyone understands that it’s a deterrent.” North Korea is still offering to stop developing nuclear weapons if the US “stops carrying out threatening military maneuvers with South Korea on its border. Not an unreasonable proposal. And it’s worth bearing in mind that North Korea was practically destroyed during the Korean War by some of the most intensive bombing in history. When there were no targets left, the US bombed dams, a war crime that wiped out crops. The North Koreans lived through that, so having nuclear-capable B-52s flying on their border is no joke. Instead of concern about whether somebody talked to the Russians, this is the kind of thing that should be pursued. That’s what anyone hoping for some form of peace and justice should be working for.”
Relations with China are also “an extremely serious issue,” Chomsky said. “China isn’t going to back down on its fundamental demands, concerning Taiwan, for example. And Trump threatening force is extraordinarily dangerous. You can’t play that game in international affairs. We’re too close to destroying ourselves. You take a look at the record through the nuclear age, of near misses. It’s almost miraculous that we’ve survived. As soon as Trump came in, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock was moved to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, both because of the nuclear threat, recognized to be serious, and the threat of environmental catastrophe, which wasn’t considered in the earlier years, but now is. These are, overwhelmingly, the most crucial issues that face us. Everything else fades into insignificance in comparison. They’re literally questions of survival.
There are now three nuclear powers that have refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: China, the United States, and Israel. If tests begin again, it would be an extremely serious danger. It was when the first tests were carried out that the Doomsday Clock went to two minutes to midnight. There’s been an inadequate, but significant, reduction in nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, and the New START Treaty is supposed to carry that forward. Russia and the United States have the overwhelming mass of the nuclear weapons. And this would cut down the number, especially of the more threatening ones. Trump has said this a ‘bad deal’ for the United States, suggesting maybe we should pull out of it, which would be a disaster.
Sooner or later, people are going to see through Trump’s con game, and at that point something will have to be done to maintain control. The obvious technique is scapegoating – blame it on immigrants or Muslims. But that can only go so far. The next step would be an alleged terrorist attack, which would be easy to construct or stage. I don’t particularly anticipate it, but it’s a possibility. And this is a very frightened country. For years, this has been probably the most frightened country in the world. It’s also the safest country in the world. It’s easy to terrify people.”
On the question of Iran, Chomsky indicated that for years the US and Israel have insisted that it’s the greatest threat to world peace, even though the US comes first in international Gallup polls. “Nobody else even close, far ahead of any other threat. Pakistan, second, much lower. Iran, hardly mentioned. Why is Iran regarded here as the greatest threat to world peace? The intelligence community provides regular assessments to Congress on the global strategic situation. It’s said for years that Iran has very low military spending, even by the standards of the region, much lower than Saudi Arabia, Israel, others. Its strategy is defensive. So, if they’re developing nuclear weapons, it would be as a deterrent. Why are the United States and Israel so concerned about a deterrent? Because they want to be free to use force.”
When asked for his thoughts “on Syria, Russia, the United States,” Chomsky said, “Syria is a horrible catastrophe. The Assad regime is a moral disgrace. They’re carrying out horrendous acts, the Russians with them.”
“Why the Russians with them?”
“Syria is their one ally in the region. Their one Mediterranean base is in Syria. But it’s kind of like the North Korean case. There have been possible opportunities to terminate the horrors. In 2012, there was an initiative from the Russians, which wasn’t pursued, so we don’t know how serious it was, but it was a proposal for a negotiated settlement, in which Assad would be phased out. The West – France, England, the United States refused to consider it, believing at the time that they could overthrow Assad. Could it have worked? You never know. But it could have been pursued. Meanwhile, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting jihadi groups, which aren’t all that different from ISIS. So you have a horror story on all sides. The Syrian people are being decimated.”
On Israel-Palestine, Chomsky said, “There’s a systematic Israeli program that’s been going on since 1967 to try to take over every part of the West Bank that’s of any value, except for areas of Palestinian population concentration, which can rot on the vine. In 1980, the US joined the world not only in calling the settlements illegal, but in demanding that they be dismantled.”
Amy Goodman: “Now you have David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, who raised money for the settlements. And Jared Kushner in charge of the policy.”
“Yeah, it’s been step by step. Reagan and Clinton weakened it. Obama and Trump let it stand. Meanwhile, the Kushner Foundation and this new ambassador are strong supporters of the Israeli ultra-right, way to the right of Netanyahu. The Beit El, the community they’re pouring their money into, is run by an Orthodox rabbi whose position is that the army should follow the rabbi’s orders. General discussions about this are extremely misleading. What’s said on all sides is that there are two options: either a two-state settlement, in accord with the long-standing international consensus, or else one state, which would be an apartheid state, in which Palestinians wouldn’t have rights, and you could have an anti-apartheid struggle, and Israel would face what’s called the demographic problem – too many non-Jews in a Jewish state. But there’s a third option, the one that’s actually being implemented: construction of a Greater Israel, which won’t have a demographic problem, because they’re excluding the areas of dense Palestinian population and removing Palestinians from the areas they expect to take over. The United States is providing diplomatic, economic and military support for this project, which will leave the Palestinians with essentially nothing while Greater Israel won’t have to face the dread demographic problem.”
On Latin America, Chomsky agreed that after a 10-year period of enormous social progress via socially minded governments, there have been steps backward in the last few years. The popular governments, with the exception of Ecuador, have been thrown out of office, and there’s a deepening crisis in Venezuela. “The left governments failed to use the opportunity available to them to try to create sustainable, viable economies. Almost every one – Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and others – relied on the rise in commodity prices, which is a temporary phenomenon. Commodity prices rose, mainly because of the growth of China, so there was a rise in the price of oil, of soy, and so forth. But these countries didn’t try to develop a sustainable economy with manufacturing, agriculture and so on during this period. Venezuela, for example, is potentially a rich agricultural country, but they didn’t develop it – they simply relied on oil. On top of that, there was just enormous corruption. It’s painful to see the Workers’ Party in Brazil, which did carry out significant measures, but just couldn’t keep their hands out of the till. They joined the corrupt elite, which is robbing all the time, and discredited themselves. I don’t think the game is over by any means. There were real successes achieved, and I think a lot of those will be sustained. But there’s a regression. In Venezuela, the corruption, the robbery and so on, has been extreme, especially since Chávez’s death.”
On the question of whether fascism could come – or has come – to America, Chomsky said that we could be “in real danger, if a charismatic figure appears who can mobilize fears, anger, racism, a sense of loss of the future that belongs to us. We’re lucky that there never has been an honest, charismatic figure. McCarthy was too much of a thug, Nixon was too crooked, and Trump, I think, is too much of a clown. So, we’ve been lucky. But we may not be lucky forever.”
Noam Chomsky’s latest book, Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, was just published.
After reading “We Have No Choice: the Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl” by Ben Taub in the 4-10 issue of the New Yorker, I’m struck yet again by the incredible suffering caused by unnecessary poverty. Unneccessary because it’s created by capitalism and capitalism’s evil stepsisters, economic imperialism and war. Taub’s article focuses on teenage girls from Benin City in southern Nigeria, thousands of whom risk death and endure forced labor and sex work each year to try to get to Europe, where they believe they can earn money to help their poverty-stricken families. And this is just one example of people around the world risking everything to try to survive in the cruel world created by our current system.
Migrants leave Africa from the coast of Libya in 30-foot rubber dinghies. “Officially,” Taub says, “at least 5,098 migrants died in the Mediterranean last year, but Libya’s coastline is more than a thousand miles long, and nobody knows how many boats sink without ever being seen.” Blessing, Taub’s 16-year-old subject, got to this point six months after leaving Benin City. “In recent years, tens of millions of Africans have fled areas afflicted with famine, drought, persecution, and violence. Ninety-four per cent of them remain on the continent, but each year hundreds of thousands try to make it to Europe. Last year, more Nigerians crossed the sea than people of any other nationality. Nigeria is Africa’s richest country, but the money that’s set aside for public infrastructure is often embezzled or stolen by government officials. As Nigeria’s economy has grown – spurred by oil extraction, agriculture, and foreign investment – so has the percentage of its citizens living in total poverty.
Blessing’s family used to own a house and a small plot of land. Her father was a bricklayer, but he died in a car accident when Blessing was a little girl. The family was close to penniless, and Doris, Blessing’s mother, was left to raise her four children alone. Blessing’s older brother began repairing cars in the marketplace, and her sister Joy went to live with an aunt. When Blessing was thirteen or fourteen, she dropped out of school and started an apprenticeship with a tailor, but he wanted money to train her, and after six months he let her go. Despondent, she believed she had no future. Through friends, she learned of a travel broker in Lagos, who said he could get her a passport, a visa, and a plane ticket to Europe. Once Blessing found work there, he promised, she’d earn enough to support her whole family. Doris sold the house and the land, and gave the money to the broker, who promptly disappeared. Blessing, who blamed herself for her family’s troubles,” found another “deal,” and left “without telling anybody.
In 2003, Nigeria passed its first law prohibiting human trafficking, but a UN report published the same year concluded that the industry was ‘so ingrained in Edo State, especially in Benin City and its immediate environs, that it’s estimated that virtually every Benin family has a member involved.’ Madams in Italy have their surrogates in Nigeria take girls to a local shrine, where a juju priest performs a ritual” believed to guarantee the girl’s death if she doesn’t keep her end of the agreement.
“Before Blessing disappeared, she met with a Yoruba trafficker, but balked when she discovered that the woman wanted her to become a sex worker. Soon afterward, her friend Faith introduced her to an Igbo woman with European connections, who was elegant, well dressed, and kind. The woman promised Blessing and Faith that she’d take them to Italy, pay for their journey, and find them jobs, so that they could pay her back. Blessing dreamed of completing her education and buying back the home her mother had lost. She climbed into a van, along with Faith, the woman, and several other girls, and began a perilous journey north. Avoiding territory controlled by the terrorist group Boko Haram, they crossed an unguarded part of Nigeria’s border with Niger. After several days and a thousand miles, they reached Agadez, an old caravan city at the southern edge of the Sahara, where by 2014 the value of the migration trade had surpassed that of any other business in the city. Migrants arrive in Agadez with the phone number of their connection man, usually a migrant turned businessman of their same nationality. Once a week, Tuareg and Toubou drivers go to the migrant ghettos, collect cash from the connection men, and load 5,000 sub-Saharans into the beds of Toyota pickups, thirty per vehicle.” They then drive northeast through the Sahara to Libya. “Before leaving Agadez, migrants are given the phone number of a connection man in southern Libya. A recent report commissioned by the UN estimated that nearly half the female refugees and migrants who pass through Libya are sexually assaulted, often many times along the route. A young Nigerian told me he’d witnessed female migrants being murdered for refusing the advances of their Libyan handlers. Last spring, Blessing, Faith, and the madam left Agadez, crossed the desert, and made it to Brak, just north of Sebha, where they stayed in a private home. Their journey through the desert had been a blur of waiting, heat, thirst, discomfort, beatings, dead bodies, and fear. The madam continued to promise the girls education and lucrative work in Italy, but it’s unclear whether she was ever in a position to decide their fate; women who accompany girls across the desert are often only employees of traffickers in Italy. One day in Brak, the madam sold Blessing and Faith to the owner of a connection house, to work as prostitutes. ‘It’s not what you told me!’ Blessing cried, starting to sob. She hadn’t sworn a juju oath, but the madam threatened to kill her. In Benin City, Blessing’s mother received a phone call from a Nigerian woman with an Italian number. It had been three months since her daughter had disappeared, and the caller told her that unless she paid 480,000 naira (about $1,500) Blessing would be forced to work as a prostitute. That Sunday, at the weekly traders’ meeting in the market, Doris explained Blessing’s plight and asked for help. Although Doris’s shop was already running on loans, the group approved her request, charging 25% interest. Godwin, Blessing’s brother, dropped the cash off at a MoneyGram exchange service, using the details given by the woman on the phone. After that, there was no further word.
Blessing was delivered to another connection house in Brak. A few days later, armed men put her and several other migrants into the back of a truck, covered them with a blanket, and stacked watermelons on top, to conceal them from rival traffickers. The truck set off north, toward Tripoli. Faith stayed in Brak, because her family didn’t pay. The drive to Tripoli from Brak takes all day and is plagued with bandits, who, like the connection men in Sebha, rob black Africans, beat them, hold them captive, demand ransoms, and murder, sell, or enslave those who disobey orders or are unable to pay. Packed on top of one another in the trucks, and concealed under tarps and other cargo, the passengers can hardly breathe. Sometimes, after unloading the cargo in Tripoli, the smugglers discover that they have suffocated. [Taub has already described how migrants are dumped in the desert to die whenever traffickers have a problem with jihadis or the military.]
Blessing was taken to a large detention center, a concrete room in an abandoned warehouse somewhere near Tripoli. For months, she stayed inside with more than a hundred people, huddled next to other Nigerian girls for safety. Arbitrary beatings and rapes were common. Sometimes the migrants were given only seawater to drink. People routinely died from starvation and disease. Finally, late one night guards roused the migrants and ordered them into a tractor-trailer. The truck dropped them at a beach west of Tripoli. Armed smugglers crammed them into a dinghy, and sent them out to sea” with only enough fuel to reach international waters, where they depended on European ships to rescue them. Sure enough, “the Dignity I, a boat operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, was patrolling a stretch of the Libyan coast – eight hours east, eight hours west, just beyond territorial waters – searching for migrants.” It picked up Blessing and the other migrants on her dinghy. “More than 11,000 Nigerian women were rescued in the Mediterranean last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, 80% of whom had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. Italy is the entry point; from there, women are traded and sold to madams all over Europe. Madams coach the girls to say they’re 18 or older, so that they’re sent to Italy’s main reception centers where migrants can move about freely. Otherwise, they end up in restrictive shelters for unaccompanied minors. ‘Sometimes I feel as if we are the smugglers’ delivery service,’ an MSF staffer said. But at least 2,300 people were saved from 18 rubber dinghies on the day Blessing was picked up, and, without the work of MSF and several other NGOs, many of them would have drowned.
The Dignity I headed for the port of Messina, on the eastern coast of Sicily, a journey of two and a half days with 355 migrants on board, the youngest three weeks old. In Messina, humanitarian workers introduced themselves to some of the girls they suspected of being under eighteen, but none of them accepted help. The UN refugee agency had sent a representative, who carried flyers outlining the migrants’ legal rights, but they were printed in Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Many people who might have been eligible for asylum told me they’d never heard of it. The Egyptians and Moroccans were pulled out of line and directed to sit under a blue awning, where they remained for the rest of the afternoon, likely unaware that Italy has repatriation agreements with their home countries. Most of them would be taken to Sicily’s expulsion center, in Caltanissetta, and flown home. The other migrants were led to a line of buses. Many migrants were temporarily kept at Palanebiolo, a makeshift camp in a former baseball stadium on the outskirts of Messina, before being distributed among other centers throughout Italy. Many contracts to provide services for the migrants are connected to the Mafia. The government allots reception centers 35 euros per migrant per day, but the conditions at Palanebiolo and elsewhere indicate that the money isn’t spent on those who stay there. A few years ago, in a wiretapped call, Italian investigators heard a Mafia boss tell an associate, ‘Do you have any idea how much we earn off the migrants? The drug trade is less profitable.’
Sex work isn’t a crime in Italy, but it attracts the attention of the police, so trafficking networks try to get residency permits for every girl they send to work on the streets. Italian police wiretaps show that Nigerian trafficking networks have infiltrated reception centers, employing low-level staffers to monitor the girls and bribing corrupt officials to accelerate the paperwork. An anti-trafficking agent from the International Organization for Migration explained that, at centers like Palanebiolo, ‘the only thing the girl has to do is make a call and tell the madam she has arrived – which city, which camp. They know what to do, because they have their guys all over.’ In Palermo’s underground brothels, trafficked Nigerians sleep with as many as fifteen clients a day; the more clients, the sooner they can purchase their freedom. ‘There’s an extraordinary level of implicit racism here, and it’s evident in the fact that there are no underage Italian girls working the streets,’ Father Enzo Volpe, a priest who runs a center for migrant children and trafficking victims, told me. ‘Society dictates that it’s bad to sleep with a girl of thirteen or fourteen years. But if she’s African? Nobody cares. They don’t think of her as a person.’ Twice a week, Father Enzo loads a van with water and snacks and, in the company of a young friar and a frail old nun, sets off to provide comfort and assistance to girls on the streets. ‘In Italy, we’re very good at the process of emergency reception – the humanitarian aspect,’ Salvatore Vella, a prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, told me. “But after that? There’s no solution. Let’s be honest: these reception centers, they have open doors, and we hope they leave. If they go to France, for us that’s fine. If they go to Switzerland, great. If they stay here, they work on the black market – they disappear.’”
Taub describes a Nigerian mafia selling drugs and managing the sex trade in Palermo, a nearby Sicilian city, under the auspices of the Italian Mafia. “The most powerful group, called Black Axe, has roots in Benin City and cells throughout Italy, and has carried out knife and machete attacks against other migrants. According to Vella, the Sicilian prosecutor, violence against Nigerian prostitutes is rarely investigated, because ‘the tendency, here in Italy, has been to not look at criminal organizations as long as they’re only committing crimes against non-Italians.’ Besides, ‘during a trial, I have to call up the interpreter to testify. Her name and birthplace are written into the public record, and the trafficking networks are so well established that, with a Skype call or a text message, they have the ability to order their associates to go into a small village in Nigeria and burn down houses with people inside them.’
After two months in Italy, Blessing, Cynthia, another Nigerian girl, and a 16-year-old girl named Juliet were the only migrants from the Dignity I still at Palanebiolo. Blessing told me that several girls from the boat had left the camp in the company of their traffickers. Blessing wanted to leave the camp, too. She missed her mother, and was eager to pursue an education in Italy. Minors are supposed to be enrolled in schools, but the girls had been left in Palanebiolo because all the centers for underage migrants in Sicily were full. In Benin City, Blessing’s schoolbooks are piled on a shelf in her former bedroom, now occupied by her younger sister, Hope, 15, who’s dropped out of school to help her mother at the shop. In order for the family to keep the apartment, Godwin helps with the rent, $30 per month. The debt Doris took on to free Blessing in Libya continues to mount. ‘I don’t know how my mummy will recover that money. But I can’t go and sell myself, even though I need money for them,’ Blessing said. ‘I better go to school. I promised myself, and I promised my mum.’ Blessing dreams of building her mother a house that’s surrounded by a wall so high that thieves break their legs when they try to scale it. The compound will have an electric gate. ‘My mum, I will spoil her,’ she said. ‘The reason I’m here now is my mummy. The reason I am alive today is my mum. The reason that I will not do prostitution is my mummy.’ Tears streamed down her face. ‘I am my mummy’s breath of life.’
Blessing, Juliet, and a Nigerian girl named Gift walked down the hill singing church songs and drawing smiles from locals. The sky was gloomy, and soon it started to drizzle. But they kept walking, farther from the camp than they’d ever been. Eventually, they reached a pebble beach, a few miles north of the port of Messina. The rain stopped, and for a moment two bright rainbows shone over the short stretch of water separating Sicily from the mainland. ‘It comes from the sea,’ Blessing said of the double rainbow. ‘Look at it now. It is going down.’ A cloud shifted. ‘It’s finished now,’ Blessing said. Gift nodded. ‘It’s gone back to the sea.’ The girls prayed. Then Blessing stepped into the water, spread her arms wide, and shouted, ‘I passed through the desert! I passed through this sea! If this river did not take my life, no man or woman can take my life from me!’”