Category Archives: Politics

Fascism and ethnic cleansing in India

This post is an edited version of Dexter Filkins’ 12-9-19 article in The New Yorker magazine, titled and subtitledBlood and Soil in India: A Hindu-nationalist government has cast 200 million Muslims as internal enemies.” (Bear in mind while reading that this is just one example, along with the United States, of a country currently taken over by such forces.)

“On August 11th, two weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent soldiers to pacify the Indian state of Kashmir, a reporter appeared on the Republic TV news channel, riding a motor scooter through the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital and largest city. She assured viewers that everything was getting back to normal, but conducted no interviews – there was no one on the streets to talk to. Other coverage on the same channel showed people dancing ecstatically, along with the words, ‘Jubilant Indians celebrate Modi’s Kashmir masterstroke.’ A week earlier, Modi’s government had announced that it was suspending Article 370 of the constitution, which grants autonomy to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. The provision, written to help preserve the state’s religious and ethnic identity, largely prohibits members of India’s Hindu majority from settling there. As part of Modi’s ‘New India,’ he’d flooded the state with troops and detained hundreds of prominent Muslims likely to ‘create trouble,’ as Republic TV described it.”

Filkins visited Srinagar with Muslim Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, and saw “soldiers on every street corner, machine-gun nests guarding intersections, and shuttered shops. Friday prayers were banned, schools closed, and cell-phone and internet service cut off.” Ayyub and Indian photographer Avani Rai were arrested in the city hospital where they’d gone to see young men blinded by police small-gauge shotguns.

Muslims make up about 14% of India’s population, with most Muslims having moved to the new country of Pakistan in 1947, if they didn’t already live there. Two million Indians died in the violence accompanying this transition, known as Partition, and afterward both sides harbored enduring grievances over the killings and the loss of ancestral land. Kashmir, on the border, became the site of a long-running proxy war.

“In 1925, K.B. Hedgewar, a physician from central India, founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization dedicated to the idea that India was a Hindu nation, and that Hindus were entitled to rule over minorities. Members of the RSS believed that many Muslims were descended from Hindus who’d been converted by force. The same thinking was applied to Christians, 2% of India’s population. Other major religions, including Buddhism and Sikhism, were considered more authentically Indian. Hedgewar was convinced that Hindu men had been emasculated by colonial rule, and he prescribed paramilitary training as an antidote. An admirer of European fascists, he borrowed their predilection for khaki uniforms, as well as their conviction that a group of highly disciplined men could transform a nation. He thought Gandhi and Nehru, who made efforts to protect the Muslim majority, were dangerous appeasers; the RSS largely sat out the freedom struggle.”

According to Wikipedia, “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (“National Volunteer Organisation” or “National Patriotic Organisation”) is an Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization that’s widely regarded as the parent organisation of the ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata (“Indian People’s”) Party. The RSS is the progenitor and leader of a large body of organizations called the Sangh Parivar (the “family of the RSS”), which has a presence in all facets of the Indian society. The RSS is the world’s largest voluntary organization and the largest NGO in the world, while the BJP is the largest political party in the world. Its initial impetus was to provide character training through Hindu discipline and to unite the Hindu community to form a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). The organization promotes the ideals of upholding Indian culture and values and spreads the ideology of Hindutva, the idea that India is an inherently Hindu nation. It’s established numerous schools, charities, and clubs to spread its ideological beliefs. The RSS was banned once during British rule, and three times by the post-independence Indian government, first in 1948 when an RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, then during a declared emergency (1975–77), and for a third time after the demolition of Babri Masjid [explained below] in 1992.”

Filkins tells us that Modi was recruited into the organization at the age of eight, and as an adult rose quickly in the ranks. “In 1987, he moved to the RSS’s political branch, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which at that time had only two seats in parliament. It needed an issue to attract new members, and found one in an obscure religious dispute over the Babri Masjid mosque built in the northern city of Ayodhya in 1528 by the Mughal emperor Babur. After independence, locals placed Hindu idols inside the mosque, convinced that it had been built on the site of a former Hindu tenple. A legend even grew that the god Ram, an avatar of Vishnu, had been born there. In September 1990, a senior BJP member named L.K. Advani began calling for the mosque to be destroyed so that a Hindu temple could take its place. On December 6, 1992, a crowd led by RSS members tore the mosque down, using axes and hammers.

The destruction of the mosque incited Hindu-Muslim riots across the country, with the biggest and bloodiest of them in Mumbai. The Ayyubs, a middle-class family, had to move to an all-Muslim slum, and when Rana enrolled in a predominantly Hindu school, she was called racist names. RSS membership soared, and by 1996 the BJP was the largest party in parliament. A psychologist who interviewed Modi at this time found him to be a puritanically rigid fascist who believed India was the target of a global conspiracy in which every Muslim in the country was complicit.

On February 27, 2002, a passenger train stopped in Godhra, a city in Gujarat. It was coming from Ayodhya, where many of the passengers had gone to visit the site where Babri Masjid had been destroyed ten years earlier, and to advocate for building a temple there. Most of them belonged to the religious wing of the RSS, the VHP. While the train sat in the station, the Hindu travelers and Muslims on the platform heckled one another. The conflict escalated when the train stalled as it tried to pull away, and someone, possibly a Muslim vendor with a stove, threw something on fire into one of the cars. 58 people suffocated or burned to death in the resulting conflagration. The state government allowed members of the VHP to parade the burned corpses through the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad, and enraged Hindus began attacking Muslims across the state. According to eyewitnesses, rioters cut open the bellies of pregnant women and killed their babies; others gang-raped women and girls. In at least one instance, a Muslim boy was forced to drink kerosene and swallow a lighted match. The most sinister aspect of the riots was that they appeared to have been largely planned and directed by the RSS. Teams of men, armed with clubs, guns, and swords, fanned out across the state’s Muslim enclaves, often carrying voter rolls and other official documents that led them to Muslim homes and shops.

The chief minister of the Gujarati government, Narendra Modi, summoned the Indian army, but held the soldiers in barracks as the violence spun out of control. In many areas, the police not only stood by, but, according to numerous human-rights groups, took part in the killing.  The riots dragged on for nearly three months, and when they were over, 2,000 people were dead, and nearly 150,000 had been driven from their homes. The ethnic geography of Gujarat was transformed, with most of its Muslins crowded into slums, one of them, still home to 1,000 people, inside the Ahmedabad dump.

After the riots, Modi’s government did almost nothing to provide for the tens of thousands of Muslims forced from their homes; aid was supplied almost entirely by volunteers. Although some Hindu rioters were arrested, only a few dozen were ultimately convicted. In the following months, evidence surfaced that the leaders of the Hindu mobs had received explicit instructions from the government, and that Modi had ordered that the rioting be allowed to take place.

Modi’s accusers have been punished in various ways, including imprisonment and assassination. He became hugely popular in Gujarat, though elsewhere in India the BJP was losing ground. As a result, Modi’s hardline faction was able to seize the Party leadership. Modi also began to build a national reputation as a pro-business leader presiding over rapid economic development [this was actually faked], and big business began to support him. Many other Indians believe that all Muslims are terrorists, and support Modi for that reason.

After graduating from Sophia College in Mumbai with a degree in English literature, Ayyub started writing for a small English-langiuage magazine called Tehelka that had a reputation for tough investigations. In 2010, in a series of cover stories for Tehelka, she tied Modi’s closest adviser, Amit Shah, to illicit business, murder, and extortion. He and, eventually 38 others, including Gujarat’s top police official, were arrested. Even though evidence began to accumulate that Modi was the power behind all of it, he was increasingly mentioned as a candidate for national office.

In an effort to find out more, Ayyub went undercover, posing as an Indian-American student at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, visiting India to make a documentary about Gujarati’s prosperity under Modi. Using hidden cameras and microphones, she got a lot of damning evidence, but her magazine ultimately decided not to publish the story, and she was unable to get a publisher for her book on the subject. Modi seemed likely to run for and win the office of prime minister, and “no one wanted to alienate him.” He was helped by an overwhelming public perception that the Congress Party, in power for most of the past half century, had grown arrogant and corrupt. By contrast, Modi and his team were disciplined, focused, and responsive, and the BJP won a plurality of the popular vote.

Not long after Modi took office, the case in which his friend Amit Shah was implicated ground to a halt, and soon Shah was getting away with not showing up for hearings. When the judge ordered him to appear, the case was taken away from him. The new judge, Brijgopal Loya, told family and friends he was under ‘great pressure’ to dismiss the case, and that the chief justice of the Bombay High Court had offered him $16 million to scuttle it. He died not long after in mysterious circumstances, and an official investigation into his death, requested by his family, hasn’t taken place. A third judge, M.B. Gosavi, dismissed Shah’s case. By this time, Modi had made Shah president of the BJP and chairman of the governing coalition – the country’s second most powerful man.

Ayyub finally published her book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up, herself in English. In it, she reveals that Modi is the official who made it possible for the RSS to parade the burned bodies of Hindu train passengers in Ahmedabad. Her source for this, Ashok Narayan, Gujarat’s Home Secretary during the riots, also said that the VHP had made preparations for large-scale attacks on the Muslim community, and had just been waiting for a pretext. He believed Modi was in on the plan from the beginning. Initially, the reaction to Ayyub’s book was muted. There was a reception in New Delhi, attended by most of India’s major political writers and editors, but no word about it in the papers the next day. Newspapers were also slow to review the book, but it took off on its own on Amazon, and the release of a Hindi edition in 2017 opened up a huge potential audience. To date, Ayyub says, Gujarat Files has sold 600,000 copies and been translated into 13 languages. Ayyub has also been invited to speak at the UN and at journalism conferences around the world. At the same time, the online/social media campaign against her has been horrific, including pronographic videos and death threats.

India’s female journalists are often subjected to an especially ugly form of abuse. The threats that Ayyub received were nearly identical to those sent to Gauri Lankesh, a journalist from the southern state of Karnataka. Like Ayyub, Lankesh had reported aggressively on Hindu nationalism and on violence against women and lower-caste people. ‘We were like sisters,’ Ayyub said. In September 2017, after Lankesh endured a prolonged campaign of online attacks, two men shot and killed her outside her home, fleeing on a motorbike.

This kind of abuse is supported by many BJP members and Modi supporters, who also post fake videos that increase Hindu hatred of Muslims and others. As Modi consolidated his hold on government, he used its power to silence mainstream media outlets as well. In 2016 his administration began moving to crush the television news network NDTV, one of India’s most credible news channels, by removing almost all government advertising, one of the network’s primary sources of revenue, and pressuring private companies to stop buying ads. Similarly, Karan Thapar, a TV journalist who’d asked Modi and BJP party members critical questions on air, was let go by his network following government pressure. The same thing happened to Bobby Ghosh, former editor of the Hindustan Times, one of India’s most respected newspapers, after he ran a series tracking violence against Muslims; and to Krishna Prasad, longtime editor of Outlook, after it revealed that the RSS was educating disadvantaged children in the state of Assam, then sending them to be indoctrinated in Hindu nationalist camps on the other side of the country. ‘So, many of the really good reporters in India are freelance,’ Ayyub said. Even news that ought to cause scandal has little effect. In June, the Business Standard reported that Modi’s government had been inflating GDP-growth figures by a factor of nearly two. The report prompted a public outcry, but Modi didn’t apologize, and no official was forced to resign.

Modi’s supporters get their news from Republic TV, which allows Modi and other Hindu nationalists to control the narrative, and features shouting matches and scathing insults of all but the most slavish Modi partisans.” Filkins says it makes Fox News look like the BBC, and gives examples of fake news stories it’s promoted.

“According to FactChecker, an organization that tracks communal violence by surveying media reports, there have been almost 300 hate crimes motivated by religion in India in the past decade, almost all of them since 2014 when Modi became prime minister. Hindu mobs have killed dozens of Muslim men, whose murders are rightly called ‘lynchings,’ evoking the terror that swept the American South after Reconstruction. When Muslims are lynched, Modi typically says nothing, and, since he rarely holds press conferences, he’s almost never asked about them. But his supporters often salute the killers. In June 2017, a Muslim man named Alimuddin Ansari, accused of selling cows for meat [cows are sacred to Hindus], was beaten to death in the village of Ramgarh. Eleven men, including a local leader of the BJP, were convicted of the murder, but last July they were freed, pending appeal. On their release, eight of them were draped in marigold garlands by Jayant Sinha, the BJP Minister for Civil Aviation.

In northern India, Hindu nationalists have whipped up panic around the idea that Muslim men, oversexed and fortified by beef, are engaging in a secret campaign to seduce Hindu women into marriage and prostitution. In many areas, any Muslim man seen with a Hindu woman risks being attacked.

As part of its Hindutva project, BJP leaders have been rewriting school textbooks across the country, erasing much of its Islamic history, including that of the Mughals, Muslim emperors who ruled the country for 200 years (1526 to 1720). They’ve also changed Mughal place names to ones that are Hindu-influenced.”

Ayyub and her photographer were released after an hour by Indian police in Kashmir. Though told to leave, they remained for several days interviewing locals who’d been jailed and tortured (many had also been killed or “disappeared”). “Indian antiterrorism law allows security forces to detain any Kashmiri for any reason, or no reason, for up to two years, and during the three decades that the province has been in open rebellion, tens of thousands of men have been disappeared, many never returning home.

I suggested that maybe it was time for Ayyub to leave India – that Muslims didn’t have a future there. ‘I’m not leaving,’ she said. ‘I have to stay. I’m going to write all this down and tell everyone what happened.’”

Constitutional crisis

In a web-only In These Times article published 11-27-19, Chris Edelson says that Republican intransigence against impeaching Donald Trump constitutes a “constitutional crisis,” one we can only resolve by reforming or replacing our current constitution. His evidence: even though recent House Intelligence Committee hearings clearly showed that Trump had tried to extort a foreign country into sabotaging the upcoming US presidential election to his benefit, few (if any) Republicans in Congress will vote to impeach or remove him – “a corrupt president who rejects the very idea of legal limits on his power from office.

Our constitutional democracy is based on free and fair elections, individual rights, independent courts, and the rule of law – the idea that no one is above the law. Trump rejects all of these bedrock principles. He’s tried to undermine free and fair elections (most recently demonstrated in the Ukraine scandal); he threatens his critics with prosecution and lawsuits, disdaining the notion of First Amendment speech and press protections; he seeks to delegitimize judges who rule against his policies; and he rejects the idea that ordinary rules and laws apply to him and his allies, declaring (erroneously) that under Article II of the Constitution, ‘I have the right to do whatever I want as president.’

Trump thus poses an existential threat to our system of government. In a functioning system, Republicans would have already joined Democrats in taking action to remove Trump from office, just as they stood against Nixon in 1974.” In our failed system, however, Trump is likely to be able to run for a second term in 2020, and, given how many Americans still believe in his unfulfilled promises and take his lies as “facts,” he may continue on his disruptive and dictatorial merry way for four more years.

“The system is failing,” Edelson believes, “because Republicans are placing partisan concerns – their loyalty to Trump or fear of the political costs of defying him – ahead of their constitutional responsibilities. We need a new constitution, designed to strengthen our democracy against this type of threat. (No system is guaranteed to succeed, but a failed one demands replacement.)

Today’s Republican Party is an anti-democratic, authoritarian party that seeks to gain – and has gained – power without winning a majority of votes. To this end, it pushes voter suppression measures and takes advantage of structural defects in our system. Gerrymandered districts can allow the GOP to win a minority of the votes and still control the House. The Electoral College gave Trump the presidency 2016, even though he lost the popular vote, a feat he stands a realistic chance of repeating in 2020. And he enjoys majority support in a Senate that doesn’t reflect the political preferences of the majority of Americans, but instead allows a  minority in sparsely populated states to wield power.

Making the electoral system more majoritarian could force the Republican Party to abandon its anti-democratic approach if it wishes to win. There’s no guaranteed way to prevent would-be authoritarians from gaining power – a popular authoritarian, for example, could win the popular vote. But Trump’s authoritarianism isn’t popular with Americans: his approval ratings are consistently in the low 40s.

A new constitution could address some of the anti-democratic features of our current system, including:

  • abolishing the Electoral College;
  • reforming or replacing a Senate that gives the 435,000 voters in Wyoming as many votes as the 17,524,000 in Texas;
  • eliminating partisan gerrymandering;
  • protecting the right to vote against voter suppression efforts; and
  • dealing with the corrupting influence of our current campaign finance system.

A new constitution could also be aimed at shoring up the rule of law, including protecting the independence of the Department of Justice and replacing the current impeachment process with something capable of holding a lawless president to account. One idea to explore would be expressly giving the DOJ independent prosecutorial authority over the president. Another would be providing a process for triggering new presidential elections – say, based on a three-fifths vote in the House and Senate.

These kinds of changes aren’t politically plausible at the moment, but they need to be on our agenda, unless we’re willing to risk another attack on the system from a future president, assuming we survive the one mounted by Trump.”

My “quibble” with these kinds of liberal, “progressive” articles is that they never present a clear, realistic solution to the problems they uncover. Our political system isn’t going to someday magically become one in which constitutional reform, which has to be approved state by state, is possible. For most Americans the Constitution is sacred writ, and the idea of changing or replacing it would be met with horror. The idea that the sainted 18th-century “founders” of our system were part of an elite just like the one that rules our country today, and that they designed our political system precisely to avoid the democratic safeguards suggested above is what first needs to be brought out. (The founders equated democracy with “mob rule,” like that soon to be seen in the French Revolution.)

Avoiding dictatorship is hard, because there are always people or groups of people who want to take on that role, as well as people anxious to avoid the adult responsibility of thinking and acting for themselves and their groups’ interests. But we need to start somewhere – or multiple somewheres. In the long run, I think we’re going to need a strong global people’s movement for real and complete economic, political, and social democracy, already started in various places, or recent and lying dormant, like the Occupy Movement. In the short run, we could work to elect Bernie Sanders, the only current candidate for president really challenging the current anti-democratic system. It isn’t going to happen by magical, wishful thinking, like the weak conclusions of articles like the one quoted above, much as I appreciate its bringing the problem into such clear focus.

 

The effect of social media and big tech on our society

In an article entitled “Big Tech’s Big Defector” in the current (12-2-19) issue of the New Yorker magazine, Brian Barth reviews Roger McNamee’s 2019 book Zucked, which criticizes social media and the corporations (Facebook and Google) that support it (note that Facebook includes Instagram and Google includes YouTube), as well as merchandisers (especially Amazon) that track our every digital movement.

A corporate investor, McNamee started cashing in on the personal-computer revolution in the early ‘80s, adding investments in Amazon in the ‘90s, and Facebook in 2009 and 2010. Initially seeing the tech industry as “an experiment in creative and profitable problem-solving,” he started questioning its ethics in 2012. “‘These guys all wanted to be monopolists,’ he said recently. ‘They all want to be billionaires.’ McNamee was still convinced that Facebook was different, but in February 2016, shortly after he retired from full-time investing, he noticed posts that purported to support Bernie Sanders but seemed fishy. That spring, the social-media-fueled vitriol of the Brexit campaign seemed like further proof that Facebook was being exploited to sow division among voters – and that company executives had turned a blind eye. The more McNamee listened to Silicon Valley critics, the more alarmed he became: he learned that Facebook allowed facial-recognition software to identify users without their consent, and let advertisers discriminate against viewers. (Real-estate companies, for example, could exclude people of certain races from seeing their ads. Ten days before the presidential election, McNamee sent an e-mail to Zuckerberg, saying, ‘Facebook is enabling people to do harm. It has the power to stop the harm. What it currently lacks is an incentive to do so.’ Zuckerberg assured McNamee that Facebook was working to address the issues he’d raised, and dispatched a Facebook executive, Dan Rose, to talk to him. Rose told McNamee that Facebook was a platform, not a publisher, and couldn’t control all user behavior. This dismissiveness rattled McNamee. ‘These were my friends. I wanted to give them a chance to do the right thing. I wasn’t expecting them to go, “Oh, my God, stop everything,” but I did expect them to take it seriously. It was obvious they thought it was just a P.R. problem.’ He hasn’t spoken to Zuckerberg (who declined to comment for this article) since, and now refers to him as an ‘authoritarian.’

As Russian election interference became increasingly apparent, McNamee published a series of op-eds – in the Guardian, USA Today, Time, and elsewhere – arguing that the social-media business model thrived on divisive rhetoric: the more extreme the content, the more users shared it, and the more the algorithms amplified it, the more ad revenue was generated. As lawmakers prepared for hearings about Russian meddling in the fall of 2017, McNamee put together a curriculum for them, which he jokingly called ‘Internet Platforms 101.’ Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, had been focused on foreign manipulation of social media, but, in a meeting, McNamee urged him to consider a broader problem – how the platforms were sowing discord among Americans. ‘Roger was really ahead of the curve,’ Schiff said, ‘and time has borne out his warnings.’

McNamee’s zeal for diagnosing problems soon evolved into a mission to devise a solution. He argued that piecemeal regulation would never get to the root of the problem: mining users’ private data for profit. In February 2019, he published Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, part memoir, part manifesto. He then embarked on a book tour that’s turned into an ongoing public-shaming campaign.

When interviewed, McNamee rattled off a frighteningly long list of things he believes have been ‘Zucked’: ‘your vote,’ ‘your rights,’ ‘your privacy,’ ‘your life,’ ‘everything.’ So far, the public is less alarmed. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that half of Americans think the tech industry is having a positive impact on society. (This view is on the decline, however: in 2015, seven in ten thought so.) Earlier this year, Google and Amazon came in second and third in a survey of millennials’ favorite brands. In general, people are more concerned about the behavior of banks and pharmaceutical companies, and most Americans have yet to meaningfully change their habits as tech consumers.

Using digital profiles to predict and influence our behavior is at the heart of Google’s and Facebook’s business models. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, published earlier this year, Shoshana Zuboff, an emerita professor at Harvard Business School, warns of a ‘rogue mutation of capitalism,’ in which tech behemoths surveil humans, and eventually control them. McNamee speaks often about surveillance capitalism, and credits Zuboff with informing his views and bringing academic clout to the cause of Silicon Valley reform.

McNamee offers himself as a case study in how to be Google-free. He uses DuckDuckGo, a search engine that presents itself as a privacy-oriented alternative to Google, and has largely renounced Gmail, Maps, Docs, and the company’s other apps. He argues that Facebook should be used for staying in touch with friends and family rather than for political debates, which the platform alchemizes into screaming matches. ‘Outrage and fear are what drive their business model, so don’t engage with it,’ he told me. ‘I was as addicted as anybody, but we have the power to withdraw our attention.’ His life is made easier by the fact that he has relatively few complaints about Apple, which he praises for taking steps to protect user privacy. Since 2017, the company’s Safari browser has blocked third-party cookies, one ubiquitous tool for gleaning personal data. And its new Apple Card, unlike many other credit cards, including American Express and Mastercard, doesn’t share transaction histories with third parties. On the other hand, researchers have found that iPhones send a steady stream of personal data to third parties, much as the Android phones McNamee decries do. The company is also a pioneer in Bluetooth beacons, tiny devices used by retailers which glean data from phones as people move about in public spaces.

The 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal is the quintessential example of how people can be turned into puppets. By collecting data from Facebook without user consent, the company was able to identify micro-populations of voters, then serve up customized ads encouraging them to vote for Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica obtained user data through duplicitous means, but similar data sets are widely and legally available; micro-targeting is commonplace on nearly all political campaigns. One of the most popular answers to this is that antitrust law should be used to take on Big Tech’s power. Elizabeth Warren, who’s met with McNamee and called him ‘one of the clearest voices’ on tech reform, has made the breakup of tech giants a central part of her campaign. Bernie Sanders has also pledged to press the antitrust issue if elected; Joe Biden has said that he’ll investigate it. In March, McNamee was invited to give a lecture at the Department of Justice’s antitrust division. In the following months, the D.O.J. and the F.T.C., along with various state legislatures and congressional committees, announced antitrust investigations aimed at Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple.

Several data-privacy bills circulating in Congress draw inspiration from California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which goes into effect on January 1st, and from Europe’s recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation. Such laws expand consumers’ control over their data and give them new legal tools for holding companies accountable. Many privacy advocates, including McNamee, argue that they’re critically flawed, however. Under G.D.P.R. rules, companies must ask users to opt in before their data can be processed by third parties, but, as soon as consumers consent, it’s more or less back to business as usual. And the rules are relatively loose when it comes to metadata. Even if the contents of a phone call are protected, the time of the call or the parties involved might not be. This is more revealing than it seems: as a memo by the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, a tech giant that doesn’t know your name might still ‘know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, then called an abortion clinic’s number.’

McNamee believes antitrust action will be effective only after comprehensive privacy reforms are enacted – otherwise, it’ll simply create smaller companies that behave in the same ways the big ones do now. ‘I want to prevent the data from getting into the system in the first place,’ he told me. The reform that would really have teeth, he says, is one that would ‘ban all third-party commerce in private information – financial information, location information, health information, browser history, and scanning of e-mail.’ Companies would be allowed to collect data needed for their services, but nothing else: a wellness app could store your height or weight but not the location of your gym – and none of this information could be shared with Facebook. The idea, McNamee explained, is that you could log a workout without then being bombarded by ads for nearby Zumba classes. Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, has pointed out that few of the current proposed policies would have any effect on whether a company can collect private data, only on how it can be used. Under McNamee’s plan, most of Google’s and Facebook’s revenues would disappear overnight, since nearly 90% of both companies’ money comes from ads. (Tech companies that don’t depend on targeted-ad revenue would remain relatively unaffected.)”

Barth concludes that the tech-reform movement can be hard to take seriously when some of its most prominent activists are also some of the most prominent tech-company shareholders,” and notes that “McNamee ends his talks by saying that the solution will be the ‘biggest business opportunity’ ever.”

In an 11-28-19 Guardian article entitled “There’s only one way to take on big tech: by reining in big money and big state,” Evgeny Morozov says that “the Warren-style critique of big tech rests on a powerful myth of domestic politics gone wrong.” He adds that “it’s easy to mistake Warren’s populist stance – let’s just break up the tech giants! – for some kind of leftism; but all it really is is a repetition of the (neo)liberal creed that well-policed, competitive markets yield prosperity. A Warren-style critique presents the rise of big tech as a series of policy errors by distracted or corrupt technocratic regulators, rather than the result of careful policy planning by Washington elites keen to use every tool possible to consolidate America’s global power. Focused almost entirely on domestic affairs, the Warren-style account rarely situates big tech alongside big money – Saudi Arabia, SoftBank and JP Morgan – and the big state – the Pentagon, with its massive contracting orders, and the NSA, with its massive spying apparatus. Positioned properly inside this troika, big tech emerges as an almost inevitable consequence of global financialized and militarized capitalism.

Not surprisingly, Warren’s account remains blind to the real reason American big tech isn’t smaller: big money and the big state need it to remain big — the former to make sure Wall Street can recoup its loss-making investments, the latter to ensure that America’s defense and intelligence needs are met swiftly, efficiently, and on the cheap. Positioned properly inside this troika, big tech emerges as an almost inevitable consequence of global financialized and militarized capitalism. Making big tech smaller, thus, can only be accomplished by trying to rein in the powers of Wall Street and the Pentagon and accepting that America should play a humble role in the global order. None of this is likely to happen, especially given American anxieties about China’s global ascent in all three dimensions – technology, finance, and military might. Smaller tech would mean America losing its ability to project its power geopolitically; and the odds that the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley – let alone the ‘America first’ Trump administration – would agree to this are nil. They’ll probably remain nil even if someone like Warren – whose foreign policy views are rather conventional, even by Washington standards – gets elected.

The powers of the nefarious troika of the big tech, big money, and big state could – and should be – contested. But this has to be done directly – by explicitly invoking and contesting the links between the financial, military, and technology dimensions of US power – and not indirectly, by discussing tendencies towards monopolization in digital capitalism. The first approach lends itself to a properly progressive political agenda; the second only to the utopian expectations that a new generation of technocrats might resolve some of the contradictions of global capitalism. In the absence of such a program, leftists should ditch the ‘big tech vs small tech’ dichotomy and speak of corporate vs non-corporate tech instead. The ownership – not just of companies but also of sensors, networks, data and services – is more important than the size of the key players. This doesn’t mean we should follow the likes of Warren in treating them as utilities, however; to do so would be to impose a ban on the kind of institutional imagination that the rise of digital technologies should have provoked – but still hasn’t – on the left.

The utilities model is problematic for many reasons, the chief of which is that data – the intimate residue of our intellectual, social and political life – unlike water, gas, and electricity, is suffused with meaning, lending itself to a multiplicity of interpretations and action plans. How this total ensemble of meanings and actions get assembled, by whom, and with what rationale isn’t a question that can be answered with any certainty in advance. The data ensemble can, as it does now, empower the advertising industry, feed virtual disinformation campaigns, and help banks extend more loans – i.e., ensure that the wheels of capitalism roll smoothly. It could also seed non-market behaviors grounded in solidarity and mutual respect, doing for the knowledge society what the welfare state once did for industrial society: create durable foundations for human flourishing. By shoving solutions to the problem of big tech into the institutional straitjacket of the utilities model, we’re giving up the opportunity to create a radically new institutional landscape – one which will de-commodify everyday life the same way the welfare state de-commodified working life almost a century earlier. This genuinely leftwing agenda doesn’t provide a simplistic, clean, but ultimately utopian answer along the lines of ‘small’ or ‘humane’ tech. But in calling out big tech as a function of American corporate power it at least gets the diagnosis right.”

 

A realistic view of the Democratic presidential race

On 7-11-19, Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, posted an article entitled “Sanders vs. the Endless Austerity Regime,” in which he cast many doubts on real change occurring as a result of the current election cycle. Let me pick it up somewhere near the middle…

“If you think this column is supportive of the Sanders candidacy, then you haven’t been reading BAR all these years,” Ford wrote. “We are socialists and Black liberationists who do commentary and analysis, and have never backed corporate parties or candidates. The Democratic Party serves its ruling class financiers, and, as one of the two parties of capitalist governance in the U.S., it will self-destruct before it bucks its corporate bosses. That’s why purported ‘socialists’ like Sanders, or the Democratic Socialists that always wind up supporting Democrats, are delusional if they think they can usurp control of the devil’s machine – or they’re trying to fool the rest of us. The ruling class isn’t scared of” Bernie’s purportedly socialist agenda, but it “will viciously resist New Deal-type reforms that threaten its austerity regime, a global Race to the Bottom that ruthlessly diminishes the living standards and economic security of the masses of people, so that they’ll accept any job, under any conditions of employment. Capitalist austerity is designed to provide working people with no options but to take what the bosses offer. Austerity regimes gut the social safety nets not to save money, but to impose abject desperation on working people, so that they’ll accept the ‘shit jobs’ that are now the norm even in the most developed capitalist countries.”

Ford says the Republican Party only has to satisfy its “rank and file whites’ only desire – that their government affirm white supremacy.” He speculates that “it would have been a great political lesson if Sanders’ momentum was such that corporate Democrats had to steal the nomination from him in broad daylight, hopefully prompting a mass exit from the party and creation of a new social democratic formation (or a much bigger Green Party).” Isn’t that what happened in 2016? “Or, if somehow Sanders won the nomination, we could all watch the corporate players pick up their marbles to form a new ‘centrist’ party, leaving leftish Democrats encamped in the hollow shell. As things stand at this early stage in the process, Sanders may simply wind up an also-ran, mobbed and co-opted by the biggest, most multi-colored crowd of Democratic politicians ever assembled for a presidential race. Dollar-drenched corporate hacks like Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have claimed to endorse Sanders’ signature Medicare for All legislation, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, once considered anathema by corporatists, is suddenly a darling of party leaders and media. The corporate strategy is to ensure that the super-majorities of Democrats that support Sanders’ issues are split among the ‘progressive’ pretenders, while Joe Biden soaks up the nervous-nellie voters that desperate to beat Trump with someone – anyone – ‘electable.’ The corporatists’ nightmare scenario, that Sanders might rev up his highly energized and youthful 2016 machine, funded by tens of millions in small-contributions, and smash his way to a first ballot victory at the convention, now seems unlikely. The corporate media have acted in near-unison to alternatively ignore or malign Sanders, often pretending he’s just not there as they fawn over his mimics, who can be counted on to retreat from corporate-opposed issues once the Bernie-bear has been contained.”

Elsewhere on the BAR website are articles detailing how Kamala Harris served the status quo and hurt black people as California’s attorney general and describing Elizabeth Warren as “decidedly to the right of Bernie Sanders on the issue of war and peace. Warren supports U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, for example, estimated to have killed over 40,000 Venezuelans  between the years of 2017 to 2018. When Trump agreed to negotiate directly with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Warren called for a more aggressive posture toward the DPRK. The Massachusetts Senator proclaimed that Israel possessed the ‘right to defend itself’ during its invasion of Gaza in 2014, which killed thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of children. Warren prides herself in fighting for a kinder capitalism but has no problem with a nasty, murderous imperialism.” Danny Haiphong, author of the article on Warren, concludes by saying that the only hope “is that the political crisis engendered by the struggle between the oligarchs and Sanders, with some help from the likes of Tulsi Gabbard and even Elizabeth Warren, will lead to the splintering of the Democratic Party and more room for independent, left political forces to breath and grow.” In another article, Haiphong says, “We should expect that Gabbard and Sanders will eventually concede to the Democrats once they’re driven from the race. Since we can’t rely on them to lead a struggle for revolutionary change from within the Democratic Party machinery, we’ll need to develop independent political organizations capable of harnessing the anger and rebellion that will surely emerge once their demise at the hands of their own party is assured.”

The corporate two-party system and its mass media don’t serve our needs, and the longer we remain focused on the dog-and-pony show of excessively long presidential campaign seasons, the longer it will take for a critical mass of us to recognize this. Like Russiagate and Mueller investigation, the presidential campaign is nothing but a distraction from the mass revolutionary movement we need to be mounting — not from the top-down, following political candidates within an unreformable system, but from the bottom up. We need to declare that the whole fake, oppressive system that now bamboozles us is illegitimate and create shadow governments and regimes we can respect and give our allegiance to.

 

Who really cares about suffering and dying migrants at the US-Mexican border?

The World Socialist website (wsws.org) can be doctrinaire, but it often gives excellent analysis of current events, as in today’s article by Barry Grey, “Image of drowned father and daughter sparks global outrage against US anti-immigrant rampage,” 6-27-19. Here’s my edited/shortened/and-added-to version of it:

The photo of a young Salvadoran worker and his 23-month-old daughter washed up on the shore of the Rio Grande has gone viral on social media and sparked world-wide outrage against the sadistic assault on immigrants being carried out by Trump, with the full assistance of the Democratic Party. The photo of Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter Angie Valeria, taken Monday by journalist Julia Le Duc, encapsulates the human toll of the fascistic and dictatorial policies being carried out by the Trump administration. The two victims succumbed to the powerful currents of the swollen river one day after having sought to apply for asylum, along with Oscar’s wife Tania Vanessa Avalos, at the legal port of entry between Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas.

The father and his daughter were among the many thousands of Central American workers fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, the legacy of a century of US imperialist subversion and exploitation. The young family was prevented from applying for asylum as a result of Trump’s “metering” policy, which effectively strips immigrants of their internationally guaranteed asylum rights by forcing them to wait in Mexico for weeks or months in sordid, prison-like camps. This is why the family decided to risk the dangerous river crossing. Vanessa Avalos could only watch in helpless horror from the Mexican side as her husband and daughter drowned.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a denunciation of the Trump administration, comparing the photo to the picture of the three-year-old Syrian refugee child, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015. The comparison underscored the international character of the attack on immigrants being carried out by capitalist governments across Europe and elsewhere. This includes Mexico, where Mexican President Lopez Obrador has mobilized 20,000 national guardsmen to serve as Trump’s anti-immigrant enforcers on the Mexican side of the border. Commissioner Filippo Grandi said, “The deaths of Oscar and Valeria represent a failure to address the violence and desperation pushing people to take journeys of danger for the prospect of a life in safety and dignity.”

Also on the weekend, US Border Patrol agents found four bodies along the Rio Grande in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, about 55 miles west of Brownsville: one toddler, two infants, and a 20-year-old woman.

In the most recent fiscal year, there were 283 deaths across the US southern border, according to US authorities. The real toll is much higher. US border patrol agents have apprehended 664,000 people along the southern border so far this year, a 144% increase from last year. Some 14,000 unaccompanied immigrant children remain in US concentration camps.

The Democratic Party has responded to the escalating war on immigrants by voting overwhelmingly to grant Trump another $4.5 billion dollars to build more detention facilities, shore up the US military presence on the border and otherwise strengthen Gestapo-like anti-immigrant agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On the same day the photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter was published, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a $4.5 billion funding bill that allocates $788 million for new CBP facilities to hold asylum-seeking families and children. It provides $866 million for facilities run by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) where unaccompanied children are sent after they are released from CBP jails. It also includes $128 million for ICE.

In the vote on the House bill, all but four voting Democrats voted “yes” (the four who voted “no” were Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib). Of the four House members who didn’t vote, three were Democratic presidential candidates – Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Eric Swalwell (California) and Tim Ryan (Ohio), in Florida preparing for the debates. The Senate passed its $4.59 billion version of the bill on Wednesday by a bipartisan vote of 84 to 8, with eight senators not voting, and Democrats giving overwhelming support to the Trump administration. Only six Democrats voted against the bill. Seven of the eight non-voters were Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand. The “nay” voters were Hirono D-Hawaii, Lee R-UT, Markey D-MA, Menendez D-NJ, Merkley D-OR, Paul R-KY, Van Hollen D-MD, and Wyden D-OR. The Senate bill is even more overtly repressive than the House version, including fewer restrictions on the brutalization of immigrants and an additional $145 million for US military operations on the border, a tacit legitimization of Trump’s illegal and indefinite deployment of active duty troops to aid police actions within the borders of the US.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi telephoned Trump to assure him that the House Democrats were prepared to accept most, if not all, of the Senate bill’s provisions in order to avoid a threatened presidential veto. The Democrats are eager to secure a deal before the week-long Fourth of July recess, which begins on Thursday. As the Senate was passing its bipartisan version, Pelosi told reporters, “There are some improvements that we think can be reconciled.” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said, “We could quickly have a conference, talk about those four changes, try to get them in the bill, finish this quickly and I hope that’s what will happen.”

The Democrats are rushing to give Trump his blood money under the absurd pretext that the measure is a “humanitarian” effort to help the children and families caught up in his anti-immigrant campaign. Last Friday, Pelosi telephoned Trump to plead with him to delay his plan to carry out deportation raids against 2,000 immigrants in cities across the US, assuring him that she would push through a border funding bill in the House. She and the rest of the Democratic Party are petrified at the prospect that such military-style raids in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities will spark mass protests and resistance that could spiral out of control. Trump agreed to wait two weeks while Pelosi and Schumer did his bidding in Congress. He also wasted no time shattering the lying pretexts about defending human rights, making clear what millions around the world already know: that he has no intention of using a penny of the money allocated by Congress to back off from his brutalization of immigrants. On the contrary, he intends to escalate the attack as a central part of his reelection campaign and the axis of his efforts to mobilize his fascistic base of support.

On Tuesday, CBP announced that it had returned 100 children to the holding facility in Clint, Texas it had evacuated the previous day after reports of squalid conditions and rampant disease aroused mass indignation. The same day, while the House Democrats were preparing to vote for the administration’s border war money, acting CBP Commissioner John Sanders resigned and Trump officials let it be known that the White House had selected acting ICE Director Mark Morgan to replace him. Morgan, who served as assistant commissioner of CBP under Obama, has made no bones about his hatred for undocumented immigrants and desire to drive them out of the country. As acting head of ICE, Morgan authored the plan for mass raids in US cities that Trump’s postponed. He spent 11 years in the Marine Corps and 20 years in the FBI, and while out of government appeared regularly on Fox News. He’s also boasted of looking into detained children’s eyes and seeing that they are “soon-to-be MS-13 gang members,” and defended far-right border vigilantes who’ve illegally detained hundreds of immigrants points and removed emergency supplies, including water, left for migrants by humanitarian groups.

According to Wikipedia, Mara Salvatrucha, popularly known as MS-13, is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1970s and 1980s. Originally set up to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other gangs in the Los Angeles area, over time, the gang grew into a more traditional criminal organization. The US government deported many MS-13 members to El Salvador after the close of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992, and the gang is currently active in many parts of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Most members are Central American, Salvadorans in particular. In 2018, the gang accounted for less than 1% (10,000) of total gang members in the United States (1.4 million), and a similar share of gang murders.The gang is often referenced by the Republican Party to advocate for anti-immigrant policies…This is how US policies, including propping up dictatorships in Latin America to the detriment of democratic movements, lead to suffering in those countries, resulting in increased efforts at migration. It’s called “blowback,” the classic case of which was US support for the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union during the 1980s, which led directly to the formation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. We should pay reparations to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and encourage democratic governments in the area, not only for moral reasons, but so that people will be content to remain in the countries of their birth.