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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, Revisited

The Berlin Wall in 1990

The Berlin Wall in 1990 (Jurek Durczak)

Editor’s Note: Twenty-five years ago today, Eric Alterman pointed out in the pages of The New York Times that our so-called foreign policy “experts” were wrong about the Berlin Wall, among many other things. Here’s what he wrote at the time.

The Soviet Union embarks on a second revolution and reaches out for peace with the West; East Europeans demand freedom and democracy; East Germans tear down the Berlin Wall and flee their country. These and other amazing changes erupt in world politics, and not one of America's foreign policy gurus comes within a country mile of predicting them. In fact, most foreign policy elites have spent the last few years explaining them away and counseling the West to do nothing. It has been a long and rocky road for America's foreign policy elite since Mr. Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Not since Copernicus, perhaps, have so many been so wrong so frequently with so little humility….

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Throughout Europe, governments, businesses and citizens' groups are forging a new order. Yet, virtually alone within the splendid isolation of the Metroliner corridor, the U.S. foreign policy elite is mired in its stagnant, Brezhnevite mindset.

Read the full text of Eric’s op-ed here. To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: No, the Demolition of the Berlin Wall Was Not the End of Socialism

Andrew Sullivan Versus the Social-Justice Warriors

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan (Trey Ratcliff/CC BY 2.0)

For those lucky enough not to remember the blustering, hysterical, left-baiting Andrew Sullivan of George W. Bush’s first term—before he was chastened by the disaster of the Iraq war and fell in love with Barack Obama—he returned for a bit on Tuesday. “Twitter has empowered leftist feminists to have a censorship field day,” he warned in a febrile post titled, “The SJWs Now Get to Police Speech on Twitter.” (SJW, for those fortunate enough not to be well-versed in Internet culture war lingo, stands for Social Justice Warrior.) The famous blogger may have given up his neocon delusions, rethought some of his attitudes towards abortion, even sort of come to terms with Hillary Clinton. But as he himself never tires of reminding us, he’s still a conservative, nowhere more so than when it comes to feminism.

Sullivan’s panic was occasioned by news that the small nonprofit Women, Action and the Media, or WAM!, is working with Twitter to try to make it more responsive to rampant gender-based harassment. The arrangement, contrary to Sullivan’s headline, doesn’t give WAM! power to decide what is and isn’t allowed on the service; it simply gives the group a direct line to Twitter to report verified cases of abuse and monitor their outcomes. “WAM! will escalate validated reports to Twitter and track Twitter’s responses to different kinds of gendered harassment,” says the group’s announcement. “At the end of the pilot test period, WAM! will analyze the data collected and use it to work with Twitter to better understand how gendered harassment intersects with other types of harassment, how those attacks function on their platform, and to improve Twitter’s responses to it.”

This has Sullivan bizarrely upset. He seems to believe that online harassment is not serious; in response to arguments that women, and particularly minority women, are being driven off Twitter, he writes, “How exactly? Does Twitter prevent women of color from using the service? Or is it simply that WAM believes that women cannot possibly handle the rough-and-tumble of uninhibited online speech?”

In a follow-up post, he speculates without evidence that the WAM! campaign resulted in the suspension of a number of anti-feminists who haven’t harassed anyone. “I actively support suspending abusive, stalking tweeters or those threatening violence,” he writes. “I just worry that some are using this to advance a left-feminist ideology through censorship of journalists.” This is the sort of paranoia that animated Gamergate—the idea that joyless Social Justice Warriors are out to corrupt the gaming media and turn games themselves into tools of ideological indoctrination—applied to an even bigger milieu.

God knows, I’m no fan of what some call social-justice Twitter, a designation I dislike because it’s an insult to social justice. Nor do I sympathize with pro-censorship tendencies on the left. But what we’re talking about here is largely an attempt to get Twitter, a private company, to enforce its own policies towards harassment so that it can no longer be used as a tool of gender-based terror. Obviously, to answer Sullivan’s facetious question, Twitter doesn’t prevent women from using the service. But its refusal to take its own rules against abuse seriously means that many women can’t be on Twitter without submitting themselves to a steady stream of rape and death threats, as well as even more frequent pornographic and racist slurs.

Before he wrote his dismissive post, Sullivan really should have acquainted himself with the many, many stories women have told about what online abuse looks like. “For the past two years, I have been harassed by someone calling himself Assholster an anonymous Twitter asshole who, on most days, creates up to ten different Twitter accounts just so he can hurl racist slurs at me,” Imani Gandy wrote earlier this year in “#TwitterFail: Twitter’s Refusal to Handle Online Stalkers, Abusers, and Haters.” Using multiple accounts, she wrote, Assholster tweets at her “friends, online acquaintances and even my work. He latches on to any tweet of mine and harasses anyone that I interact with.”

Twitter’s own rules prohibit this sort of behavior, which it describes as “targeted abuse.” But again and again, people who have been singled out by sadists on Twitter have found that the company is unresponsive. In 2013, after the British activist Caroline Criado-Perez launched her successful campaign to get women on British banknotes, she started receiving as many as fifty sexually abusive tweets an hour. Twitter’s response was so anemic that UK politicians got involved; Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper wrote the company a letter saying, “Despite the scale and seriousness of these threats, the official response from Twitter continues to be extremely weak—simply directing Caroline away from Twitter towards the police, and, belatedly, directing users to abuse-reporting forms on Twitter.”

Twitter tends to be much more attentive to abuse victims when they have some sort of power. In August, after Robin Williams’s suicide, his daughter Zelda was bombarded with sick tweets blaming her for it or showing her father with Photoshopped bruises around his neck. It made headlines, and the service acted quickly, suspending a number of accounts and promising to improve its harassment policies.

Today, the Verge published a piece about how Twitter has been quashing anti-Semitic abuse lodged at British MP Luciana Berger, using what “seems to be an entirely new anti-abuse filter,” in the words of writer Sarah Jeong. In the past, the bile directed at Berger has made headlines; a Nazi sympathizer named Garron Helm was recently jailed for four weeks for a tweet he sent her. But then, the tweets stopped. “If an account attempted to @-mention her in a tweet containing certain slurs, it would receive an error message, and the tweet would not be allowed to send,” wrote Jeong. No one else appears to receive this kind of protection. “The selective censorship doesn’t seem to reflect a change in Twitter abuse policies or how they handle abuse directed at the average user,” writes Jeong.

By setting up a direct channel to Twitter, WAM! may be able to get some ordinary women the type of consideration previously available only to high-profile victims. It’s hard to see what’s objectionable about that, but Sullivan has a problem with the underlying premise “that abusive rhetoric and language online makes the web an unsafe space for women, in a way it does not for men.”

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Given Sullivan’s failure to take women’s own writing about this seriously, maybe he would listen to the libertarian Conor Friedersdorf. During a guest-blogging stint for Megan McArdle, Friedersdorf described his encounter with her inbox. “Even as someone who’d previously blogged about immigration in California’s Inland Empire, fielding insults and aggressive invective as vile as any I could imagine, I was shocked by a subset of her blog’s correspondence,” he wrote. “To this day, I don’t know if I was experiencing a typical or atypical week. Perhaps in the abstract, there isn’t any threat more extreme than the death threats I’d received and brushed off as unserious. But I read emails and comments addressed at McArdle that expanded my notion of how disturbing online vitriol could be. And it took my actually reading them for my perspective to change.”

No doubt, as a gay man with a lot of enemies, Sullivan also receives many sexually inflected attacks. Maybe that’s why he thinks it’s enough to tell those on the receiving end of such abuse to just toughen up. “We are all capable of having thick skins and that isn’t restricted to one gender or another,” he writes. But if he thinks that women aren’t being driven offline, aren’t censoring themselves to avoid abuse and aren’t having their careers damaged, he’s simply wrong. Perhaps he would argue that the loss of some voices, the voices of those who can’t withstand daily torrents of threats and slurs, is a worthwhile price to pay for an absolutely unfettered Twittersphere. If so, he should make that case, rather than fantasizing that feminists are more often the silencers than the silenced.


Read Next: This is what a feminist looks like in Mauritius.

Will the Supreme Court Destroy the Affordable Care Act?

Dorian Warren

President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law in March of 2010, and it’s been dogged by right-wing attempts to reverse it ever since. Last Friday, the Supreme Court announced it would hear another challenge to the ACA, this time in the case King v. Burwell. Depending on how the judges come down, they could end up outlawing some of the federal tax subsidies that are helping people buy individual insurance policies.

Dorian Warren, an associate professor in Political Science at Columbia University, argues that doing away with these subsidies will be “taking money out of people’s pockets and taking away their health insurance coverage.”
—N’Kosi Oates

This Is What a Feminist Looks Like in Mauritius

Mauritius worker protest

Workers in Mauritius protesting in October (photo: IndustriALL)

The scandalous headline splashed across the British tabloid page said it all: “This is what a CHUMP looks like: Miliband under fire for wearing £45 ‘feminist’ T-shirt that is made in a 62p-an-hour sweatshop.” The target of this Daily Mail exposé wasn’t the usual salacious celebrity scandal: it was a garment factory in the Indian Ocean island nation Mauritius, where reporters traced the origins of the now-infamous heather-gray shirts displaying the glib slogan: “This is what a feminist looks like.” It was part of a charity campaign to rebrand feminism as cool, fun, carefree and fashionable.

And it can also be hypocritical, evidently. The Mail ran photos of Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband smugly posing in the shirt, alongside a portrayal of colorfully clad South Asian factory workers, apparently proudly displaying their handiwork—the same damning garment—in the grim Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile factory, full of women huddled over sewing machines. So that’s what a feminist looks like?

The stunning juxtaposition in the tabloid spread, activists have pointed out, is actually quite an ordinary scene in the South Asian manufacturing hubs that feed the global fashion production chain, where women earn pennies an hour to produce clothes that sell for well over their weekly wages.

Labor groups seized the opportunity to raise awareness about garment workers across Asia. The IndustriALL union coalition, which has also campaigned for the victims of Bangaldesh’s Rana Plaza factory disaster, points out that the factory workers were part of a larger labor system that fuels the fashion industry through mass exploitation. Workers face extremely harsh, hazardous labor conditions, while organized labor is often heavily suppressed. While the T-shirt slogan adds a tinge of irony, these factories, which had purportedly been vetted by the brands but were allowed to impose such conditions, are not the exception but the rule of global manufacturing.

Since the Mail broke the T-shirt story, the campaign’s big-name sponsors, the fashion retailer Whistles and the charity Fawcett Society, have dodged media inquiries. But the labor activists who work with Mauritius garment workers have stepped up to champion their own brand of feminism.

Local labor organizers have demanded higher base wages and revision of an outdated old payscale under a three-decade-old remuneration order. Jane Ragoo, general secretary, and Reeaz Chuttoo, president of the Confederation of Private Sector Workers (CPST) tell The Nation via e-mail, “It has the worst condition of work, i.e. 45 hours of normal work and 10 hours of compulsory overtime. The basic wage is even below poverty line.” (The estimated poverty line in 2012 was Rs6200 per month—about US$200—which is already just a fraction of what’s needed to support a family).

According to media reports, the workers at the scandalous T-shirt factory earned about Rs6000 per month, including compensation in the form of food and housing (sleeping sixteen workers to a room in “prison”-like facilities). That’s about $190 per month—still less than half of the living-wage benchmark of US$458. The government estimates the income level needed to cover basic needs for a family of four is nearly quadruple that wage.

As in many other garment-exporting countries, women workers are especially economically vulnerable, making up a disproportionate share of the impoverished population, subjected to gendered labor segregation, and suffering higher levels of unemployment compared to male workers. The Mail also reported fewer than 8 percent of workers were unionized, despite claims by the T-shirt crusade’s leaders that “the women had union representation.”

Many of the women at the factory were identified as migrants from India and Bangladesh. According to Ragoo and Chuttoo, about 15,000 of the industry’s 65,000 textile workers are migrant workers, and while they are supposed to enjoy comparable labor protections to Mauritians, employers capitalize on their marginal status as foreigners: “migrant workers are over exploited, since they have no family burden, they are considered as beast of burden and are expected to work anytime. If they protest, ring leaders are spotted and they are sent almost immediately to their country.… It is very difficult to organise workers in the private sector. As per law, when [there is] a demand for recognition to the employer, the latter has two months to respond…. The employer uses these two months to threaten and to convince workers not to join the union.”

Migrants are dissuaded from unionizing before they even set foot in Mauritius, according to the union leaders: “When they sign their first contract in their country of origin, they are made to believe that they should not join unions. Therefore when they come here, they are afraid to join the unions.” Many migrants do not organize until a crisis hits: “We get [in] contact with them when they encounter problems here, they are directed to our office by the police.”

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Still, one thing that both working women in Mauritius and their Western counterparts have in common is that they believe work can be, despite the hardships, a pathway to economic advancement, enabling women to achieve some economic independence and to support their children’s education.

But knitting together the global economy and working women’s development needs takes more than just a paycheck. While workers toiled away at the designer T-shirt factory, the CTSP was campaigning on its 2015 budget platform, which demanded free universal public education and healthcare, strengthening of the regulatory bodies governing labor and safety standards, more regulations on imported foreign labor and contracted labor, wage reforms based on a “living social wage” standard, and income supports for the poorest workers. The plan also proposes that the government acknowledge the labor of housewives and allow them to contribute to the state-sponsored pension scheme. The union declares

It is an undeniable fact that every woman is a working woman. As a housewife, she is compelled to cook food, wash clothes and uniforms, caring for children and the elderly to enable their husband, father or son to perform their duty in their respective branch. As such all women are directly contributing in the growth of our country and they deserve to be covered under the social safety act.

That may be the key takeaway from the High Street feminist fashion scandal: “Every woman is a working woman.” Maybe someone should put it on a T-shirt.


Read Next: Michelle Chen on the dangers faced by fracking workers

Fall Interns' Recommended Reading

Nation interns.

Fall 2014 Nation interns

This piece has been reposted from The Nation Institute.

Talal Ansari, Los Angeles, California

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

My interest in this book came initially from my fascination with the Naxalites in India, a Marxist guerrilla group that controls much of the tribal regions of India known as the "Red Corridor." They control a substantial chunk of the country. Much of that land also happens to be mineral-rich and extremely poor–an unfortunate combination. Lahiri’s story of two brothers, one who joins the Naxals, and another who leaves for the United States, brings to light much of India's troubled history with Communism and class inequality.

Aaron Braun, Brooklyn, New York

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Finally got a chance to read Arundhati Roy's first novel. It's insanely beautiful and deeply historical. My favorite moment involves, so far (I'm almost done), involves a small plaque that reads "Work Is Struggle. Struggle Is Work." 

Naomi Gordon-Loebl, Brooklyn, New York

Corona, by Bushra Rehman

Coronais the coming-of-age novel that New Yorkers — born or transplanted — have all been waiting for. Expertly told in a non-linear form that reflects the layered narrative, it tells the story of Razia, a queer Desi woman growing up in Corona. It's as much a love letter to Queens as it is a book about identity and self-possession. And if you're anything like me, you'll find yourself thinking about it long after it's over.

Edward Hart, Kansas City, Missouri

What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer

Richard Ben Cramer, who died last year, wrote what's widely considered to be the quintessential book about American political races through his detailed reporting from the trail of the 1988 presidential campaign. His book is magisterial in its scope, and many of his observations are just as applicable to today's political climate. But the book, for all its detail, never becomes tedious (granted, though, I'm only halfway through its 1,000+ pages).

Yazmin Khan, Norwalk, Connecticut

Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert

This book is a fascinating read, tracing the history of the modern world through cotton. Sven Beckert is a historian at Harvard who focuses on capitalism, and cotton is the vehicle through which he explores the establishment of the American economic system, and the economic approach of European colonization.

Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Blindness, by José Saramago

It's been a while since I read this novel by deceased Portuguese novelist José Saramago, but I can't help including it here. Blindness takes place in an unnamed country where, all of a sudden, nearly everyone loses their vision. Following the outbreak, the government rushes to confine everyone infected in quarantine facilities. In the "prisons," violence rules. As society collapses and humanity evaporates, one woman becomes the eyes for her husband and several other, guiding them amid chaos. The novelcriticizes modern society and its "blindness." It's a metaphor for the many ways we aren't able to see.

Jessica McKenzie, Emporia, Kansas

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré

I had the arrogance to think I knew what was going on in this book, so when I got to the quickly unraveled conclusion I was devastated. It's also newly relevant (sort of) because of the alleged similarities between the Snowden saga and John le Carré novels. Atmospherically, it's also perfectly suited to these windy and cold autumn nights.

Muna Mire, Toronto, Ontario

Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by Charles Blow

From the first moment my eyes came across an excerpt of Charles Blow's new memoir in the pages of the New York Times, I knew I would lay hands on it, by hook or by crook. The words electrified my soul, setting my brain alight. Naturally, I told everyone I could about how much I wanted to have this text in my life. I set an intention and the universe conspired with me: I happened upon an advance copy, gifted to me by The Nation (good looking out and a hat tip to my fellow intern Naomi). Since then, the book hasn't left my person. I am taking my time with it — it's a short read. But, slowly, slowly, not unlike the pace of life in the Louisiana Blow conjures to the page, I am delving into what is becoming one of the most impactful autobiographical texts I've ever encountered.

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N'Kosi Oates, Neptune, New Jersey

Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year, by Tavis Smiley

On April 4, 1967 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most controversial sermon ever at Riverside Church in Manhattan. As an exemplar of Christianity, King renounced America's gargantuan participation in the Vietnam War. Death of a King details the final year of his life leading up to his assassination precisely one year after his Riverside speech. Inundated with intimacy, the book accompanies King as his personal thoughts and insecurities emerge, revealing the turbulences of a public figure fighting to direct America's moral compass and the complexities of conceding one’s values amid the rejections of others.

Allison Pohle, Solon, Ohio

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in AfghanistanJenny Nordberg

In Afghanistan, parents have sons and daughters, but they also have "bacha posh," which translates to "dressed up like a boy." In her book, Nordberg embeds herself in Afghanistan's male-dominated culture to investigate why prepubescent girls are passed off as boys to their classmates and communities. The book centers on Azita, a member of Parliament who has four daughters, which is seen as a weakness. She and her husband decide to make their youngest daughter a son, which changes the public's perception of her. But "Mehran," as her daughter is now called, must also deal with the public's changed perception of her as she navigates Afghanistan's "man's world." Nordberg artfully explores the gender divide, as well as the divide between foreigners and natives. While her female subjects, Azita and Mehran, are forced to stay in the country, Nordberg is free not only to live as a woman, but also to leave.

Read Next: Can Youth Build New Worlds With the Ballot Alone?

How California’s Prison Reform Law Will Fight Overincarceration of Women

LA County jail

A woman sits handcuffed after arriving at the Los Angeles County women's jail in Lynwood, California. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

When major strides are made in criminal justice reform—as just happened in California with the passage of Proposition 47, a law that will reduce penalties for nonviolent, low-level crimes—we tend to assume that those who will directly benefit are men of color, particularly black men. After all, if current incarceration trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to do time in prison. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has stunned audiences nationwide by reporting that more black men are in prison or jail, or on probation or parole today than were enslaved in 1850.

But while statistics like these are devastating, it’s also true that the number of women behind bars has spiked in recent decades. In the past thirty years, women have entered US prisons at nearly double the rate of men. The population of people housed in women’s jails and prisons has grown by more than 800 percent.

Prop 47, the new law that 58 percent of California voters approved last week, could be a godsend for impoverished and addicted California women and girls. It will reclassify as misdemeanors six crimes including shoplifting, writing bad checks and drug possession that had been prosecuted as felonies. Offenses involving more than $950 are exempt from relief, as is anyone with a violent crime or sex offense on his or her record. The crimes affected by the change disproportionately fuel the incarceration of women. According to the recent report “Bias Behind Bars” from the California Women’s Foundation:

  • Women in the state are three times more likely to be in prison for forgery or fraud.

  • California women are twice as likely to be incarcerated for petty theft.

  • Nationally, women are 63 percent more likely than men to be in prison or jail for simple drug possession.

  • In recent years, California women were found to be between 18 and 35 percent more likely than men to be in prison for receiving stolen property.

“These are all things that black and poor women are going to prison for at very high rates,” says Dream Hampton, a writer, filmmaker and activist who fought to pass Prop 47. “I knew that if this passed, that this was a change that would deeply affect women, particularly black and poor women. We can’t talk about mass incarceration at this point without talking about women. It’s a real shame that it continues to be framed in this single-gendered way.”

Hampton is a partner with the Revolve Agency, which integrates cultural strategies into policy campaigns. She got celebrities including Jay Z and John Legend to urge “yes” votes. She also led a social media campaign using the hashtag #SchoolsNotPrisons to ramp up awareness of the initiative online and to frame it as a law that would not only challenge mass incarceration but also save money—more than $1 billion over five years, according to Drug Policy Alliance—and redirect those savings toward interventions that could keep people from landing in front of a judge in the first place. By eliminating the need for between 10,000 and 30,000 jail beds, funds will instead be directed toward mental health services, drug treatment and dropout prevention. According to the Los Angeles Times, “A quarter of the savings would be sent to the Department of Education, and 10% would go to a state victim compensation fund. The majority of the money would go to a state jail commission to disperse grants for mental health, substance abuse and diversion programs.”

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Because Prop 47 applies retroactively, sentences and charges are already being adjusted. The new law will also address the specific barriers to community re-entry that women who have served time behind bars face, including finding suitable housing for themselves and their children, and stable work. A felony drug conviction can be a red flag on a public housing application, and women are overrepresented in fields such as retail, childcare and eldercare for which a criminal record can immediately disqualify a job applicant. The same strict scrutiny is less often applied to more male-dominated fields such as construction and manufacturing, according to the report.

Lenore Anderson, who directs Californians for Safety and Justice and chaired the campaign to pass Prop 47, said the reclassification of “nonviolent, nonserious crimes” from felonies to misdemeanors will open up new opportunities and access for Californians.

“Some of the barriers that people face will no longer be faced,” she said.


Read Next: Prisons are destroying communities and making all of us less safe

History Didn’t Bring Down the Berlin Wall—Activists Did

Mikhail Gorbachev

Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. (Reuters/Jim Young)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

On November 9, 1989—twenty-five years ago—huge crowds of East Germans descended on the Berlin Wall. The restless citizens were responding to an announcement by authorities suggesting that the government would loosen travel restrictions.

In truth, those in charge intended to make only limited alterations in visa requirements. But their intentions quickly became irrelevant. Mass numbers of people flocked to the wall, overwhelming the border guards. Soon, along with allies from the West, the crowds began dismantling the hated barrier for good.

Remarkably, although the fall of the Wall was an iconic moment, it was just one of the highlights in a flurry of activity that was sweeping through the Soviet bloc—a series of uprisings that would become known as the revolutions of 1989.

Every so often, we witness a period of mass insurgency that seems to defy the accepted rules of politics: Protests seem to begin popping up everywhere. Organizers see their rallies packed with newcomers who come from far outside their regular network of supporters. Mainstream analysts, taken by surprise, struggle for words. And those in power scramble as the political landscape around them dramatically shifts—sometimes leaving once-entrenched leaders in perilous positions.

If ever there was a time in modern history that exemplified such a moment of peak public activity, it was the second half of 1989.

Although the crowds at the Berlin Wall on November 9 assembled in impromptu fashion, their gathering was not altogether spontaneous. It came after months of growing demonstrations and escalating pressure on the country’s Communist Party. Throughout the fall, weekly rallies in Leipzig had called for freedom of travel and democratic elections. Demonstrations in that city began with just a few hundred protesters, but they grew exponentially until, by early November, they were attracting as many as half a million. The contagion reached other cities as well: Mass protests started erupting in Dresden, East Berlin and beyond.

Demonstrations in East Germany did not feed only off each other; they also drew energy from what had become a region-wide revolt. Earlier that year, in the spring, historic marches in Hungary set an example of how popular pressure could propel negotiations with a reformist government. That summer, in Poland, the union-based opposition party Solidarity—having led a series of crippling strikes the year before—won a stunning and decisive victory in the country’s newly liberalized elections. By autumn, rebellion was in full bloom. Hardly more than a week after the November 9 revolt in East Germany, students in Prague undertook the first demonstration of the “Velvet Revolution.” By the end of the month, social movements would call a general strike and force the end of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia.

Looking back now, what can we learn from these extraordinary mobilizations?

Conventional political analysts see the revolutions of ‘89 as a spontaneous, once-in-a-lifetime swelling of popular discontent. Their description of the wave of uprisings in Eastern Europe mirrors the assertions they make virtually every time an outbreak of mass mobilization erupts on the political stage: They tell us that these moments of peak activity are rare and unpredictable. They contend that mass protest is the product of broad historical forces. And they suggest that no one could consciously engineer events that trigger such upheavals.

On each of these points, the political tradition known as “civil resistance” offers a contrary interpretation. Those who listen will take very different lessons from the momentous ferment of twenty-five years ago.

Civil resistance—the study and practice of nonviolent conflict—is a tradition that traces its lineage through the campaigns of Gandhi, the US civil rights movement, the works of scholars such as Gene Sharp and contemporary revolts such as the Arab Spring. Immersed in the study of how unarmed uprisings work, analysts in this tradition put forth several propositions that challenge conventional wisdom about 1989: They contend, first, that extraordinary mobilizations are not as rare as they might seem; second, that there is an art to organizing around them; and third, that activists willing to embrace a strategy of nonviolent escalation can often set off historic upheavals of their own.

Uprisings large and small

Before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the idea that the Iron Curtain would fall not primarily through coups and military maneuvers but through the mobilization of mass, unarmed resistance would have seemed improbable at best and quite possibly deluded. But what has been remarkable in recent decades is how frequently new examples of successful civil resistance have presented themselves. From the Philippines, to Chile, to South Africa, to Serbia, to Tunisia and Egypt and beyond, the repertoire of civil resistance has ushered in remarkable changes.

Certainly, the revolutions of ‘89 were exceptional in their breadth and impact. Yet, viewed in another way, mass uprisings are a more regular part of our political lives than we often acknowledge. Once you are looking for them, popular mobilizations appear constantly—materializing with little notice in diverse countries, drawing new participants out of the woodwork and upending politics as usual. The Arab Spring of 2011 is an obvious example, one that evoked memories of Eastern Europe. But momentous disruptions need not be so sweeping and international to be significant. Nor need they take place in undemocratic contexts.

Just in the United States, and just in the past fifteen years, we have seen disruptive outbreaks emerge with shocking frequency, capturing the spotlight at a wide range of levels, from the national to the local. Nationwide, landmark protests against the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund in Seattle and Washington, DC, at the turn of the century were followed by massive antiwar mobilizations in New York and San Francisco in 2003. Historic immigration marches in 2006 were followed by the multiplying encampments of the Occupy movement in 2011. State-level mobilizations such as the Wisconsin uprising, citywide protests against police brutality in Oakland and Ferguson and campus living-wage sit-ins, while taking place on more modest scales, have all had an outsized impact in galvanizing public debate. For intensive spurts, each drew in unusual numbers of participants, activating people in ways that are mysterious and foreign to conventional politics.

That mainstream commentators are taken by surprise, again and again, by such mobilizations—large and small—speaks more to their own biases than to the contours of how social change happens.

And yet their biases are not unique. A predisposition toward gradualism extends even into social movement circles. The school of community organizing pioneered by Saul Alinsky has traditionally viewed mass mobilizations with suspicion. Organizers in this lineage charge that outbreaks of protest are flashes in the pan, too unpredictable and unsustainable to be relied upon. They stress that their goal is to build “organizations,” not “movements”; they seek to create institutions that can leverage grassroots power on an ongoing basis. Interestingly, Alinsky himself was more open to the extraordinary potential of peak moments than many of his ideological descendants. Seeing the rush of civil rights activity that followed the 1961 Freedom Rides in the segregated South, Alinsky and his protégé Nicholas von Hoffman dubbed it a “moment of the whirlwind.” The two agreed on the need to temporarily set aside their normal organizing methodologies in order to tap into the energy of the extraordinary uprising.

The politics of the unusual

In contrast to conventional politicians, and even to many organizers, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. carefully studied the dynamics of creating moments of the whirlwind. They were specialists in the politics of the unusual. Through the use of nonviolent conflict, they sought to produce ruptures in the normal functioning of the political system, and thus to propel previously ignored injustices to the fore of public consciousness. It was their talent for doing so that secured their places in history.

In his famous 1963 letter from the Birmingham city jail, King explained that the purpose of direct action “is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation” with otherwise intransigent adversaries. Early in his career, King had been reluctantly thrown into crises created by other activists and organizations. But by the time of the Birmingham campaign, he had developed a savvy understanding of how to manufacture nonviolent conflicts that could stir national indignation and move foot-dragging politicians.

In his 1968 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he described civil rights organizations using militant direct action as “specialists in agitation and dramatic projects,” creating “explosive events” that “attracted massive sympathy and support.” He self-critically noted that these events were no substitute for building institutional structures that could sustain the fight for the long haul. Still, the uprisings he helped create in places like Birmingham and Selma had shaken the American public like few other efforts and had become defining peaks in the push for civil rights.

Decades before, Gandhi had likewise articulated how nonviolent conflict could be used to consciously provoke social crises. “Those who have to bring about radical changes in human conditions and surroundings,” he wrote in 1932, “cannot do it except by raising a ferment in society.”

One of the earliest studies of Gandhi’s method, Krishnalal Shridharani’s 1939 text War Without Violence, elaborates on this theme. It notes that unarmed uprisings often have more in common with war than with routine interest-group politics. “Underlying…both violence and non-violence,” Shridharani writes, “is the basic assumption that certain radical social changes cannot be brought about save by mass action capable of precipitating an emotional crisis, and that the humdrum everyday existence of human life needs shaking up in order that man may arrive at fateful decisions.”

In 1930, when the time came for a decisive confrontation with the British Raj, the Indian National Congress entrusted Gandhi as the sole strategist in charge of crafting its direct-action challenge. Congress members did so not because they were his spiritual disciples—in fact, many distrusted his otherworldly faith in the power of redemptive suffering—but rather because Gandhi had gained a hard-won reputation for being able to create disruptions of historic proportions. In this case, the result was the famous Salt March of 1930, one of the landmark events in the drive for Indian self-determination.

An undetermined future

When social movements are able to provoke political crises that prompt dramatic change, they are not always given much credit for their efforts.

Looking at the revolutions of ‘89, some political scientists hardly discuss popular movements at all. Instead, they focus on economic and geopolitical developments. They stress how the long-term strain caused by competition with the West and the perpetual economic crises in the Eastern bloc fomented unrest. They highlight Mikhail Gorbachev’s signals that the Soviet Union would tolerate reform rather than replicating the Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square. These stances are part of a wider trend: Political analysts commonly describe the timing and fortunes of mass uprisings as the product of historic conditions rather than the decisions of citizens themselves.

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Analysts in the field of civil resistance do not deny the importance of economic and political context. But they emphasize the interplay of such conditions with the skills of social movement participants—the agency of activists, as reflected in their strategic choices and on-the-ground execution.

Historians have the luxury of looking back after the fact of an uprising and identifying the structural forces and historical peculiarities that contributed to a successful effort, or that helped to sink an unsuccessful one. Activists on the ground, in contrast, never have the benefit of hindsight, and they must make the most of whatever conditions they encounter. As Hardy Merriman, an analyst and trainer in nonviolent conflict, writes, “agency and skills make a difference, and in some cases have enabled movements to overcome, circumvent, or transform adverse conditions.”

It is important to note that, overwhelmingly, the same experts who would later credit historical conditions for the momentous shifts of ‘89 did not foresee the potential that existed at the time. Writing for the leading journal Foreign Affairs in 1987, a former US ambassador to Czechoslovakia argued that, despite signs of openness from Gorbachev, “there is no prospect of fundamental change in relations between [Warsaw Pact] countries and the USSR.” In the face of such discouraging prognoses, it took a daring and skillful leap of faith for activists to challenge the entrenched and repressive regimes that ruled over them.

From trigger to explosion

Ultimately, neither skills nor conditions are enough on their own. At any given time, history might offer up a “trigger event” that provokes widespread outrage and sends people into the streets. But it takes determined escalation on the part of social movements to keep the issue in the spotlight, to compel greater participation and sacrifice, and to repeatedly reinforce the sense of public urgency.

A final lesson that we can draw in looking back at the revolutions of ‘89 is that, when a whirlwind truly begins churning, it is not the result of one incident. Rather, it is the product of multiple, compounding crises—many of which are the result of deliberate effort.

In his book Doing Democracy, Bill Moyer, a longtime social-movement trainer and theorist of the nonviolent direct-action tradition in the United States, describes the concept of a “trigger event.” A trigger is a “highly publicized, shocking incident” that “dramatically reveals a critical social problem to the public in a vivid way.” These events, Moyer argues, are an essential part of the cycle of every social movement. They create vital windows in which activists can rally mass participation and sharply increase public support for a cause.

Prominent examples of trigger events include the accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in 1979, which suddenly made nuclear safety a hot-button issue. Just days after the accident, a previously planned anti-nuclear rally in San Francisco that ordinarily might have attracted hundreds of participants instead drew a crowd of 25,000. Similarly, the 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus prompted a community-wide boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. And the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Muhammad Bouazizi set off the 2011 revolts of the Arab Spring.

Trigger events, however, are only the beginning; they provide no guarantee of change. There are countless instances of oil spills and school shootings, for example, that spark outrage but ultimately have little impact on political life. Likewise, there have been many other self-immolations that did not have the effect of Bouazizi’s.

In truth, the triggers that do morph into explosive revolts are often less accidental than they first appear. Civil resistance works when groups are willing to seize an opportunity and escalate—rallying the power of mass participation and personal sacrifice in order to produce ever more ambitious acts of resistance. Before Rosa Parks, there had been previous arrests on Jim Crow buses, but civil rights groups consciously chose to make Parks’s arrest into a test case for segregation, in part because she was a committed activist herself. In other instances, from the Salt March to Birmingham to Occupy, movements created their own trigger events, using disruptive actions to make headlines, prompt a reaction from authorities and begin a cycle in which new participants could join in to ever-larger actions.

On November 17, 1989, a week after the Berlin Wall fell, students in Prague held a march to mark the anniversary of a university activist who had been killed during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Sociologists Lester Kurtz and Lee Smithey describe how, when the students encountered security forces, they offered flowers to police and waved their bare hands in the air. The police attacked nevertheless, indiscriminately bludgeoning the students with their truncheons.

“This was the spark that set Czechoslovakia alight,” one writer later remarked.

Certainly, the students were responding to the swelling of revolt in countries all around them. But it was their decision to brave the threat of repression—knowing the dangers, but not the consequences—that launched the Velvet Revolution. And it was the decision of countless others to join them that gave the revolution its force. Today, few things about the whirlwind uprisings of 1989 are more relevant to remember than this choice: to rise up in the face of uncertain outcomes, to risk escalation and to create the possibility of setting a movement ablaze.

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Stephen Colbert to GOP: Don’t Fall Into ‘the Governing Trap’


Now that the Republicans will control the House and the Senate, they’re free to strut their stuff and start governing. Anyway, that’s what some GOP boosters in the media are urging. But Rush Limbaugh as well as National Review Online understand that making laws—ostensibly what the politicians were elected to do—is a dangerous political strategy. In a post the NRO editors actually called “The Governing Trap,” they reasoned thusly:

If Republicans proclaim that they have to govern now that they run Congress, they maximize the incentive for the Democrats to filibuster everything they can—and for President Obama to veto the remainder. Then the Democrats will explain that the Republicans are too extreme to get anything done.

….A prove-you-can-govern strategy will inevitably divide the party on the same tea-party-vs.-establishment lines that Republicans have just succeeded in overcoming. The media will in particular take any refusal to pass a foolish immigration bill that immediately legalizes millions of illegal immigrants as a failure to “govern.”

….If voters come to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are doing a fine job of governing together, why wouldn’t they vote to continue the arrangement in 2016?

Stephen Colbert (who will be the blowhard Stephen ColBER for only several weeks more!) took the governing trap to its logical, absurd conclusion.

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Never Mind ISIS, It’s ISDS That’s the Real Threat

Farmers in Japan protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Farmers in Japan protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Reuters/Yuriko Nakao)

The media have been pushing a line, following Republican victory in last week’s midterm election, that the one area where Barack Obama and a now GOP-controlled Senate might find room for compromise is trade, especially the approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a twelve-nation deal. The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, The Washington Post and the Daily Beast, among others, along with Obama and few Republicans, have suggested that Mitch McConnell will be more likely to bring the deal to a vote than Harry Reid, who refused to do so.

But Public Citizen says talk of Republicans giving Obama fast-track approval is just wish fulfilment. It’s the House, not the Senate, that matters when it comes to trade authorization (Clinton got NAFTA early in his first term but later a Republican-controlled House denied him fast-track power, with 171 Democrats and seventy-one Republicans voting no). There are only “a handful of House Democrats who supported the bill: eight out of 201 members,” writes Public Citizen, and three of them attached conditions on their “yes” votes that are unacceptable to Republicans.

As with NAFTA, the lobbying will be intense to pass the deal, with the lucre of corporate campaign contributions sweetened by the praise that would be heaped on yea-voting members for transcending partisanship. It would be a disaster were the TPP to pass and go into effect, for multiple reasons: it deregulates financial speculation; it eviscerates the ability of nations to enforce environmental regulations; it locks in a deeply unequal trade and intellectual property-rights regime, granting a handful of the world’s largest corporations monopoly protection; and it encourages the privatization of public services and public property.

Worst of all, it, it globalizes the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS, which allows corporations and investors to “sue governments directly before tribunals of three private sector lawyers operating under World Bank and UN rules to demand taxpayer compensation for any domestic law that investors believe will diminish their ‘expected future profits.’” Under such provisions, mining corporations have taken El Salvador to court for trying to limit their right to open-pit mine the country and pollute its rivers and El Lilly has sued Canada, complaining that its patent laws have hindered profits it could make on an ADD drug. Public Citizen writes that “over $3 billion has been paid to foreign investors under U.S. trade and investment pacts, while over $14 billion in claims are pending under such deals, primarily targeting environmental, energy, and public health policies.” “Corporate power unbound,” is how Northeastern law professor Brook Baker puts it, specifically of what ISDS means for pharmaceutical companies. Even Forbes thinks ISDS is “overkill,” since is socializes financial risks and reinforces the myth that trade primarily benefits large corporations.” But that’s just honesty in advertising.

The Obama Administration is not backing down. Recently (on Halloween), US Trade Representative Michael Froman, referring to a similar trade deal with Europe (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), insisted on including a strong ISDS provision: “It’s hard to imagine a high-standard agreement—this is intended to be an agreement that’s a model for the rest of the world—it’s hard to imagine a high-standard agreement that doesn’t have the high standard of investment protections as well”; “ISDS fundamentally gives our investors abroad the same rights we give foreign and direct investors in the United States: the right to not be subject to discriminatory or arbitrary treatment.” “We’re going to keep on working to get it done,” Obama just said.

If a “high-standard” ISDS is included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the results could be catastrophic, especially for the environment and people fighting to protect the environment. In Peru and Chile, two parties to the deal, mass mobilization against intensified resource extraction has had some success. Peru’s President Ollanta Humala ran for office as a leftist, but once in power cracked down viciously. Scores of anti-mining activists have been killed by security forces but the protests have continued: investment in gold, silver and copper has dropped as a result of the unrest and industry stocks have “spent the last few years on a roller coaster ride.” A robust ISDS could give Humala and foreign corporations the upper-hand.

In Chile, environmentalists have lately scored a number of important victories. After years of organizing, activists earlier this year forced the government to cancel HidroAysén, a project to build multiple dams in pristine Patagonia (though yet another dam looms). Even more recently, a Chilean court sided with a local community and blocked the development of a gold- and cooper-mine owned by Goldcorp, a Canadian corporation. Under the terms of ISDS, Goldcorp would be able to sue Chile to have the decision reversed—or be compensated for the loss of expected profit that it would have made were the mine to go forward.

The thing is, no one knows if a tough ISDS is included in the trade negotiations. From the beginning, the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been shrouded in so much secrecy that it lends legitimacy to the worst fever dreams of Sovereign Citizen types. Corporations have had access to the negotiating text of the treaty, but not the public. What we do know about TPP largely comes from Wikileaks and other watchdog organizations.

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In any case, we should stop referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a trade deal and rather think of it in political terms. Negotiating for the TPP started in 2005, just after Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela teamed up to scuttle the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. The TPP is Washington’s answer to that rebuke, and one of its geostrategic objectives is to divide and rule South America, providing a counterbalance to regional integration centered around Brazil and, by extension, China, which is also notably not part of the TPP. (This further underscores the importance of Dilma’s re-election in Brazil: according to Foreign Policy in Focus, Chile has been doing its best to moderate the worst aspects of the treaty, demanding limitations on hot money speculation and concessions to “protect national sovereignty from trade rules that might undermine access to medicines and other sensitive public policy matters”; Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, would be in a significantly weaker negotiating positions were either of Dilma’s two recent challengers in charge of the world’s sixth-largest economy.)

If the United States were really honest about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it would be debated under the War Powers Act and administered by the Pentagon, for in effect it will, just as NAFTA and CAFTA have done, institutionalize a regime of perpetual crisis, to which there is only one solution: perpetual militarization. Central America and Mexico writ large across the Pacific Rim.

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US Soldiers in Iraq

(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

I won’t be saying anything in public about the recent events regarding this blog. I may have something to say in the future, but I’m sitting tight for the moment and I apologize to those I am disappointing. In the meantime, I made some comments a few weeks back in this article, which provide some perspective about the difficulties the issue raises. Alas, I underestimated them.

The Real Thing on Broadway
The holiday gift-buying guide begins: Mister Ed, The Jeffersons, Merv Griffin and the Stones.

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing has always been one of my favorite plays and I thoroughly enjoyed the Roundabout’s revival, currently on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater. It stars Ewan McGregor, who is thrilling, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is not thrilling, but who is luminously excellent in her part in ways that McGregor is not. It also stars Cynthia Nixon, of whom I am usually a fan, but who is woefully miscast in this and does not ever really even get her accent right. (Josh Hamilton is quite good in a smaller role.)  You’ll not find a play with wittier dialogue than this one. It simply could not fail to entertain, and with McGregor in the main role, it actually sparkles. But as other reviewers have also noted, his performance lacks the sadness, the disappointment, the boredom that underlies a middle-aged loss of the power and bravery of youth. (Believe me, I know of what I speak.) So it’s a fun play, with scintillating, smart dialogue and entertainment galore, as the saying goes. But it’s not the masterpiece that we’ve seen before, sadly.

The holiday gift-giving guide begins:

Well, my friends at Shout! Factory have been busy reviving some of the more painful memories of my childhood, alone in front of the TV while everyone else was out having fun. Foremost among these are Mister Ed: The Complete Series, to be released on December 9. It’s six seasons, 143 episodes, 3,480 minutes and twenty-two discs of a talking horse saying “Wilburrrrrrr” a lot, and it’s pretty well-written. They are also about to release The Jeffersons: The Complete Series. That is a Norman Lear show and hence, helped set the standards for innovative TV in its day.  It is an incredible ten seasons, 253 episodes, 4,440 minutes on thirty-three discs. The amazing cast includes Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, and Marla Gibbs, with guest stars Sammy Davis, Jr., Gladys Knight, Reggie Jackson, Billy Dee Williams, among many others. It’s still kind of weird to see how many cliches were necessary to communicate the lives of working class black people to white America in those days (1975-1985) but that makes it more interesting to watch today.

Finally, I am really (really) enjoying MPI Home Video’s The Merv Griffin Show, 1962-1986, which I used to watch when the 4:30 movie was not something I wanted to see. It’s 2,520 minutes on twelve discs and includes, believe it or not, long interviews with and performances by Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Whitney Houston, Jerry Seinfeld, the Everly Brothers, George Carlin, Willie Mays, Aretha Franklin, Salvador Dali, Timothy Leary, Ray Bradbury, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, Ronald Reagan, Robert Kennedy, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, Ingrid Bergman, Jayne Mansfield, and the final interview with Orson Welles, who died just a few hours after the show, among many, many others. The discussions are relaxed, respectful and informative and never cloying the way so many interview shows are today. There’s also some great music. It’s a really terrific collection and anyone interested in the culture of that period will find it a rewarding one.

And finally finally The Rolling Stones have started a new series on CD, Blu-ray and DVD. The one I’ve got is from Eagle Vision From the Vault: Hampton Coliseum, from 1981. The show was on Keith’s birthday—wonder if he knew—and is a pretty damn good show, reasonably well-recorded visually, given the limitations of the time, but with excellent acoustics. For me the highlight is “Just My Imagination” into “Twenty Flight Rock” into “Going To A Go-Go,” but there’s also a mess with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” at the end and a great “Under My Thumb” as the opener.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

So Long at War, We’ve Forgotten Where It Started and Can’t See the End
by Reed Richardson

Ninety-six November 11ths ago: Americans were celebrating. No, celebrating is the wrong word. Better to say rejoicing, as in re-experiencing joy after a long stretch without much of it. Europe was rejoicing, too, even more so, as it had by far gotten the worst of it, but the US had paid a toll too. Though the signing of the official peace treaty was still months away, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month nearly a century ago, the guns of war literally fell silent, marking the real end of what had been the most efficiently bloodiest chapter in world history to date. The New York Times headline summed up the finality of the moment with an appropriately direct front-page headline: ARMISTICE SIGNED, END OF THE WAR!

Sixty November 11ths ago: Armistice Day was now officially Veterans Day, thanks to an act of Congress. The decision to change holiday’s name was made to broaden its focus and honor all those who had recently fought in World War II and Korea. In the Federal Register, President Eisenhower noted that commemorating November 11 wasn’t just about paying tribute to those who had served in the military, but was also about “redirecting ourselves to the cause of peace.” This was no boilerplate sentiment from the man who had led the Normandy Invasion; at that point, our nation had been at war for seven of the past fourteen years.

This November 11th, however, we’re entering our fourteenth consecutive year at war. And yet, an unprecedented thirteen Veterans Days removed from peacetime, it’s still increasingly hard to foresee a Times headline proclaiming a permanent peace. War has now become so normalized in our country that it serves as little more than background noise, both in politics and in the press. Even when we do wind down a major war, it gets little more than a relatively sleepy headline from the likes of The New York Times.

In fact, we’ve been at war for so many years that the media is now in the midst of ignoring our nation’s longest war for a second time. Twelve Veterans Days ago, you’ll recall, the war in Afghanistan was already being neglected by the press, who had begun to dutifully follow the Bush administration pivot to selling its disastrous invasion of Iraq. When Obama ran for president in 2008, he famously promised to refocus on the fight against the Taliban. His post-election surge of troops into Afghanistan drew more media attention with the Iraq War winding down. However, the establishment press proved too distracted with gaffes and optics during the 2012 election to notice the surge’s final results, which by the fall of that year were clearly little more than a complete failure. Perhaps that’s why the press moderators at the four presidential debates only asked one question about the war in Afghanistan across two of the debates. And why, in the other two debates, the word “Afghanistan” got but one mention.

That the media would prove so incurious and uninterested in our prosecution of the war in Afghanistan in a year when more than 300 American service members died was shameful. It also explains why, all too predictably, Afghanistan has faded even further from the press’s radar in the years since, especially during the recent run up to our newest war in the Middle East. This, despite the fact that our latest foreign enemy, ISIS, has killed but two Americans so far (plus one has died in the mission fighting them), while the war in Afghanistan has now claimed 2,350 US veterans’ lives in total, forty-nine of them this year.

How bad has this media myopia gotten? According to a search of the TV news archive, for all of 2014 the number of mentions of “Afghanistan” on the network news evening broadcasts and the five Sunday morning news shows is less than half of that for “ISIS” and “ISIL,” even though the latter terms had never appeared until a few months ago. (One specific example: NBC Nightly News has mentioned Afghanistan 115 times this year, but ISIS and/or ISIL 271 times.)

Similarly, while questions about the threat of ISIS were common fodder for press moderators during the recent midterm debates, only one question about Afghanistan appeared among nearly two-dozen debates in the eleven most competitive races. Credit Tim Carpenter of The Topeka Capital-Journal for asking the Kansas Senate candidates—Independent Greg Orman and Republican Senator Pat Roberts—if the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq justified all the blood and treasure expended. Both of their answers were a muddle of equivocation, but the American people aren’t so undecided. Roughly two-thirds of us agree that the war in Afghanistan and the (previous) war in Iraq simply weren’t worth it. These examples, one would think, would serve as powerful reminders to all of us that war never turns out as expected and wars of choice rarely turns out well.

Of course, it’s a nice sentiment when major media figures pay tribute to the sacrifices that generations of veterans have made, but retweeting old Defense Department profiles pictures isn’t enough. It’s of much greater service to our country—and to our veterans—when journalists do their actual job. Because if the press shirks its duty to ask critical questions about our military operations abroad, and to hold leaders accountable when they fail to achieve their promised goals, it makes it that much easier for our nation to make the same fatal foreign policy mistakes over and over again.

Not coincidentally our latest war in Iraq and Syria has already provided ominous examples of a mission gone awry, much like the unraveling we’ve seen recently in Afghanistan. And though the administration maintains that US combat operations on the ground isn’t an option in Iraq and will be officially cease by the end of this year in Afghanistan, the idea that the US won’t still be engaged in at least one, if not two combat wars come next Veterans Day is a tragic joke. Already, there are subtle signs that reality will play out differently. Leaving 10,000 troops Afghanistan and doubling the U.S. military presence in Iraq to 3,000 simply makes it that much easier to excuse and execute the next escalation.

However, if you want to find an honest, insightful critique of this potentially catastrophic quagmire, the mainstream media is the last place to look. It has grown too preoccupied with the theatrics and rhetoric of leadership to pay much attention to where we’re being led. So the task increasingly has fallen to few outspoken veterans, who aren’t afraid to speak up on behalf of their brethren on active duty. Count retired US Army General Dan Bolger among them. In his new book, Why We Lost, Bolger pulls no punches, taking on the madness of a militarized foreign policy trapped by a fixation with sunk costs and obsessed with turning an endless series of mythical corners.

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What our active duty military and the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were asked to accomplish was effectively impossible, Bolger explains. Unless, he points out, the US is willing to become a multi-generational occupying power and engage in decades of intractable empire enforcement. Or, as he put it to The Guardian this week:

“That’s what the mistake is here: to think that we could go into these countries and stabilize their villages and fix their government, that’s incredible, unless you take a colonial or imperial attitude and say, ‘I’m going to be here for 100 years, this is the British Raj, I’m never leaving.’”

Neither the previous nor the current occupant of the White House would ever publicly commit to decades, if not a century, of war, but, in effect, that’s where our nation is headed. Sadly, most of the press couldn’t be bothered to notice. But this disinterest does a disservice to all of us—veterans included. For, the idea that ten or twenty or even ninety-six November 11ths from today, Americans might still be fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no end and no peace in sight, is a story we can’t afford not be told.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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