What Trump, Erdoğan, and We Have Done to Syrian Kurds

YPG Fighter With Child

The Kurds are an ethnic/linguistic stateless people living primarily in Eastern Turkey and northern Iraq (where they make up about 20% of the national population), northeast Syria and northwest Iran (where they make up roughly 10%).

Since 2012, northeast Syrian Kurds have formed an essentially independent government, based on libertarian socialist principles (non-authoritarian socialism). They’ve been able to do so by fighting off the ISIL faction in Syria’s civil war, and as such were loosely allied with American troops in the region.

On 7 October 2019, President Trump announced his plans to reassign these troops elsewhere in Syria. Since the troops will be taking their air support with them, this leaves Syrian Kurds vulnerable to invasion by Turkey. Turkish president/thug Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then indicated he would do so, using ethnic cleansing to clear a 20-mile deep area along the border as a new home for some of Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Attacks began almost immediately. Erdoğan has threatened to release the Syrian refugees into Europe if he is opposed (how he would do so is unclear).

Why Does Erdoğan Hate the Kurds?

There’s been resentment in Turkey towards its Kurdish minority for decades, roughly since a Kurdish separatist movement arose following the end of the Ottoman Empire. Authoritarian politicians, there as here, sporadically stoked this resentment in hopes of bolstering their own popularity. Repressions have included sometimes banning the language, deposing democratically elected Kurdish politicians, jailing and murdering leaders and journalists, and so on. After a failed 2016 coup attempt (probably started by members of the Turkish military), Erdoğan used the coup as an excuse to crack down even further on Kurdish civil society.

The mostly Christian Armenian population now coexists peacefully with the mostly Muslim Kurdish population.

And ethnic cleansing is not new to Turkey either; during WWI the government is estimated to have murdered between 700,000 and 1,500,000 Armenians (some Kurds helped, as is often the case with genocides: turn one oppressed minority against another). Some who fled for their lives ended up in Northeast Syria, where Armenian culture has existed for centuries. The mostly Christian Armenian population now coexists peacefully with the mostly Muslim Kurdish population. They are sure to be among hundreds of thousands at risk of losing their homes if Erdoğan fulfills his invasion plans. This has caused some prominent American evangelical leaders to criticize Trump’s strategic decision. (I don’t imagine they’ll stay mad for long.)

A Common Fate for American Proxy Allies

It’s not the first time America has used Kurdish fighters as allies then abandoned them to regional enemies; as Jon Schwarz observes, it’s more like the eighth, usually involving our obsession with ruling Iraq from Washington.

Nor are the Kurds our first recent foray in exploiting the self-determination dreams of a stateless people; we did it in Southeast Asia with the Hmong, who faced reprisals from the Laotian government after supporting the US side.

Thousands died in Laotian re-education camps or trying to reach refugee camps in Thailand. We allowed a handful to escape here. There are sizable Hmong populations in California and Minnesota today as a result.

Why Is Trump Doing This?

America has used Kurdish fighters as allies then abandoned them to regional enemies many times before.

Who knows. Trump apparently made the decision following a call with Erdoğan, one of the endless series of tyrants our would-be Mussolini admires.

Probably it’s a win-win-win scenario in his mind since it pleases a tyrant, pretends to be disentangling the US from endless Middle Eastern wars, and screws over suffering people. The US foreign policy establishment, naturally, considers any example of even slightly successful socialism to be a strategic threat, although it’s unlikely Trump pays any attention to such matters.

He did promise that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off-limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” No doubt Syrian Kurds feel better now. Besides, as William Rivers Pitt points out, Trump owns a hotel in Istanbul; “financially firebombing your own properties” is not a typical Trump move (except via his own stupidity and narcissism).

The Time I Needed Kurdish Tea

Which brings to mind a personal anecdote. I used to live above a Kurdish restaurant in Saint Paul (one of my favorite restaurants, ever). The building owner, a serious Trump-type super-jerk who inherited the building from his dad, was a slumlord and a sleaze; he’d hang out in the lobby at the beginning of every month to hit on college students moving in.

It was impossible to interact with this man without him being insulting and demeaning, making fun of you for having a low-rent apartment. One time he really got under my skin, I don’t remember with what. It was right before I was meeting someone at the restaurant.

And boy, did I vent. I let loose a tirade of f-bombs that would make a mobster blush. The place was pretty empty at the time, and I’m sure my voice was audible all the way in the kitchen.

The owner, a conservatively dressed middle-aged woman, came over to our table. “I think you need some Kurdish tea,” she said, and comped me a cup.

She was right! It absolutely calmed me down.

I’m happy to report that not long after I left that horrible landlord, the restaurant did, too. They’re doing fine in a new location nearby. Same owner, same excellent food, and the same tea.

How to Follow This Story in the US

Right now, there is major media coverage in the US, largely because a few Republican members of Congress have criticized Trump’s withdrawal decision. (This is presumably because of the risk to Armenian Christians and the possible resurgence of ISIL in the region, not concern over the Kurds.) This coverage is already beginning to fade; simple humanitarian crises don’t make our evening news.

One can, of course, trust Al Jazeera English to stay on the story and to see updates from Democracy Now! Economic anthropologist David Graeber (a strong supporter of the Kurdish socialist movement) has, for years, been providing links to coverage of anti-Kurdish repression on his Twitter feed, including many local news sources.

We should follow what happens because, in large part, we did it. And the great anti-war writer, ex-soldier Danny Sjursen sadly notes, betrayal is American foreign policy; “next time, and there will be a next time, don’t even think about trusting Uncle Sam. You’ll thank me later.”

Update

Since I wrote this, the Syrian Kurds have asked corrupt Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for military assistance resisting the Turkish invasion. Assad has virtually no support from anybody in Syria, but he does have lots of guns, probably half of which we sold him, if the history of US interventions is any guide.

Accepting Assad’s help means the end of a socialist Kurdish society in northeast Syria. And that’s correct; preventing murder or forced relocation is more important than protecting an experiment in actual democracy. It’s what Sjursen predicted, and it’s terribly sad. Why not actually flex our international muscle to support the locals, for once? Because we’re America, and that’s not what we do.

Trump claims the relocated soldiers will be returning home. He says, “Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made.”

That’s a good campaign bit, but it’s utterly untrue — we’re not getting out of the Middle East, we’re just repositioning troops. Our war on and about that region never ends. Trump didn’t start it, Trump will not end it, and the suffering will continue, far away, to people about whom we couldn’t give a damn.


Kurdish YPG Fighter by Kurdishstruggle licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Can We Start Killing Gender-Specific Pronouns?

All Genders Matter

I come at the gender-pronoun question from the opposite perspective of most people — but especially social conservatives. Ever since I started writing, I have hated gender-specific pronouns. But for a long time, I resisted the use of the plurals “they” and “them.”

For some time, I was very fond of “it.” It says a lot about me that I thought “him” and “her” could easily be replaced with “it.” My friends thought I was crazy. But why? I don’t mind being referred to as “it.” If all humans were referred to as “it,” there would be no stigma. Yes, I am weird. But after a few years, I realized this fact about myself and gave up on the idea.[1]

Back at the start of 2016, I gave up on solving the gender neuter problem in what I considered an appropriate way. I accepted the plurals as the best option. But to be clear: the issue remained contentious.

And then transgender issues made it to the mainstream of discussion.

Transgender “They” and “Them”

I noticed that a lot of transgender people — especially non-binary people — used “they” and “them” as pronouns. For me, this has been like manna raining down from the heaven where all grammar inadequacies and contradictions are solved. “Yes!” I said to myself. “Let us all act as non-binary people! Let’s destroy gender-specific pronouns for good!”

Let’s start the party!

Transgender People Are Not a Monolith

But there is a problem. There are a lot of transgender people who identify with the opposite gender as their sex.[2] And many of these people would like society to acknowledge their gender just as most cis people do.

We can’t dismiss this desire. Sure, in a perfect world, there would be no need. “We are all individuals!” But I fear we are a good deal further from that world than most liberals would like to think.

What’s more, it doesn’t really matter. There are plenty of pretend alpha males who live in terror of their true selves ever being made public.[3] Who am I to say that they aren’t deserving of society’s reinforcement of their identities? I’m not going to misgender someone even if they take pride in misgendering others.

Toward Gender Neutrality in Grammar

My concern is about grammar and finding language that is accurate. So there’s never a problem saying, “Annette Hanshaw came to sing, and she was great.” But I would like to move toward a language that didn’t include gender — where the standard was, “Annette Hanshaw came to sing, and they were great.”[4]

As a result, I think those who feel comfortable should forsake gendered pronouns. So please: use “they” and “them” for me. But don’t do it because my gender is indeterminant or fluid. I reside very comfortably in the male gender category. This is an opportunity to simplify the language. And I’m always keen on that.[5]


[1] Given the way that many treat transgender people, I can well imagine some awful people using “it” in an effort to dehumanize those in the transgender community. So there is another reason not to use “it.”

[2] I understand that sex is a complicated subject. Forgive me for simplifying there.

[3] I don’t mean to imply anything specific here. However, it has long been my contention that bisexuality among men is far more common than normally believed.

[4] If we ever reach the point where the plural pronouns are default, I might want to discuss getting rid of the plural verb. “Annette Hanshaw came to sing, and they was great.” For now, it sounds odd and grammar needs to change slowly.

[5] Note there are cases where having gender is helpful. For example, when writing about a man and a woman, you can use gendered pronouns throughout without having to use names or descriptions for clarity. But this is a very small advantage that does not begin to compare to the advantages of gender-neutral language. What’s more, even the most barely competent writer can easily solve any problems that come up because of a lack of gendered pronouns.

Trans Solidarity Rally and March 55401 by Ted Eytan licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Elizabeth Warren’s Different Stories — Updated

Elizabeth WarrenI’m not particularly good at being a member of a tribe. I am only in a tribe because I like and agree with it. Usually, I’m the first to sound the alarm. But this is because I do care about the tribe. And that’s how I feel right now being an Elizabeth Warren supporter.

It hasn’t broken through to the mainstream media, but there is a story about why Warren stopped being a special needs teacher. According to her now, she was effectively fired because she was pregnant. Back in 2007, in an interview on Conversations with History, she seems to be saying that she left voluntarily.

More recent reporting indicates that the Board of Education renewed her contract.

Alternative Narratives

The allegations don’t disturb me all that much. First, I have already written that Warren is going to face challenges now that she’s doing so well in the polls. I welcome that. Warren shouldn’t be the nominee if she can’t deal with stuff like this.

And I can well imagine what the counter-narrative will be. She can say that, as an academic, she didn’t want to mention that she was fired. So she mentioned a few details but left out that embarrassing bit about being fired. That actually goes along with how she discussed it in 2007. It certainly isn’t the case that she said, “Oh, the Principal begged me to stay but I had to follow my dream!”

As for the Board of Education, that doesn’t mean anything. If Warren was going to be told she needn’t come back because she was pregnant, it wouldn’t have been done in an official capacity. This was 1971. They would know they’d be facing a lawsuit.

None of this is to say that Warren is telling the truth. From my own experience, I know how stories change over time. I’ve seen friends tell the same story over decades and seen how they change even though my friends absolutely believe they are telling the truth. But obviously, this kind of explanation won’t work because regardless of all we know about how the brain works, people won’t buy it. It’s certainly true that my friends do not accept the fact that their stories change over time.

Conservative media presents this as “another” case of Warren lying. What they mean is “second.” And the first was not her lying regardless of how you feel about her claim to have Native American blood. In truth, this whole controversy isn’t substantive. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t enough to destroy her candidacy.

Let’s Have Answers

What most bothers me is that the Warren Campaign hasn’t issued a statement. This thing has been going on for about five days. I realize it hasn’t gotten traction. But it’s better to kill it now than to allow a firestorm once the mainstream media picks it up. And it will eventually be picked up because another Democrat will bring it up or Trump will in the general election.

Of course, if Warren doesn’t have a good answer for this, it is a major problem. This is a lot like Biden in 1987. But if this really is nothing, I’d like it to be resolved. Actually, I want it resolved either way.

Update

CBS News reported, Warren Stands by Account of Being Pushed Out of Her First Teaching Job Because of Pregnancy. It’s almost exactly what I figured above. I find it credible. Of course, conservative media will continue shouting, “Liar!” They would never accept her regardless. I don’t see how this becomes a narrative used by the mainstream press the way it did (wrongly) for Al Gore. But we’ll see.

Warren Supporters: Sanders Is Not the Enemy

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie SandersEric Levitz wrote an interesting article over at New York magazine, The Bernie vs Warren Debate We Need. It’s a good article and worth checking out. The gist of it is that people are making too much of their differences because the existing Democratic Party (to say nothing of the Republicans) will limit what they are able to do. So the debate should be about how good Sanders and Warren will be on foreign affairs and economic regulation — two things they can do on their own. What I like about it is that he recognizes that both candidates have potential advantages and that these need to be debated. What I’ve seen is mostly Sanders supporters claiming he is in all ways better than Warren, and Warren supporters ignoring the whole debate because she’s winning.

Levitz was on Majority Report Thursday. Sam Seder tried to be very even-handed in this. But he brought up an analogy that I think is telling. (I don’t want to spend the time to find the exact quote; it’s a 42-minute interview.) Roughly, it’s this: “It’s like Bernie can go 70 mph, Warren can go 60 mph, and Biden can go 30 mph. But it doesn’t matter because the speed limit is 50 mph.” Levitz more or less agreed with this. I don’t think he should have.

Stop Begging the Question

The article wouldn’t be that interesting if it were just, “Bernie’s better but it doesn’t matter.” That wouldn’t be something we should talk about. What Levitz is saying is that Sanders has better policies on foreign affairs. What’s that going to do for us if he’s president? Similarly, Elizabeth Warren has much more aggressive ideas for taming the domestic economy. What’s that going to do for us if she’s president? The point is that we should be discussing this and not just assuming that “Sanders is better” or “Warren is more popular.”

So Seder’s analogy begs the question. It assumes that Sanders is better. A more accurate analogy of Levitz’s argument is that Sanders can drive faster on freeways and Warren can drive faster in the city. Are we looking at the next administration driving more on the freeway or in the city? Discuss.

In conversations with Sanders supporters, Warren’s abilities to reform the regulatory framework through executive action are simply ignored. Nowhere do you see Michael Brooks doing segments on Sanders’ timidity when it comes to taking on big business. I understand that there is an argument to be made that the US is such a pernicious force in the world that foreign affairs are all that matter. But you need to make that argument. And the truth is, it isn’t an easy sell.

Engage Substantively — Not With Talking Points

I’m not naive enough to think that any of this will change minds. Those going in as Sanders supporters will still find that he is the candidate to support. The same is true of Warren supporters. But there are some important things here.

First, it means that Warren supporters and Sanders supporters can engage with each other on an honest level rather than caricaturing the other candidate. Second, it will allow supporters of one candidate to see the other in a more nuanced way. Third, it won’t lead to the creation of a bunch of talking points for the Trump campaign to use against whoever wins the primary.

I’m mostly talking to Warren supporters here. The truth is, we’ve lost the battle with Sanders supporters. And the worst time to talk to them is when the Sanders campaign is struggling.

I want to get Warren supporters on board with this now when she is ahead. Anything could happen. It might turn out that Elizabeth Warren has been having an extramarital affair with a Marine. (Note: actual smear campaign!) Sanders could pull out in front and win the whole thing. And I really don’t want to see Warren supporters do to Sanders what Sanders supporters are now doing to Warren.

Because I will fight just as hard against that.

Rudy Giuliani Has Not Gotten Worse

Rudy GiulianiSeveral people have mentioned that Rudy Giuliani sure isn’t the guy he once was. This is wrong. He’s exactly the guy he always was. It’s just that in the past, people (the media in particular) gave him a pass. He’s definitely the vile and corrupt man you see on Fox News and CNN. But there’s no reason to think this has changed.

Early Rudy

Just look at his move from Democrat to independent to Republican. He had been a Democrat — the default for someone from New York. But when he got in good with the Ford administration, he became an independent. Then, pretty much the moment that Reagan was elected president, Giuliani became a Republican. This almost certainly was due to an offer to work in the Reagan administration. The one thing you can definitely say about Giuliani is that he always does what is best for himself — as much as a man as silly and ignorant as he knows what’s best for him.

Under Reagan, Giuliani oversaw the placement of Haitian refugees. Those that weren’t put in concentration camps were sent back to Haiti because, Giuliani claimed, they weren’t actual refugees. It was the same then as now. He claimed they were just fleeing poverty and thus had no claim on asylum. This is one of countless examples that make me bristle when I hear someone say that Trump is notably worse than previous Republicans.

For all that period, Rudy Giuliani made public racist comments even while claiming that it was outrageous that anyone called him racist. And his later tough-on-crime stance — including his “broken windows” and stop-and-frisk policies are all a part of that. He ran what was basically an authoritarian administration as governor of New York. And it is not at all clear this even resulted in reduced crime.

Looking at the whole of Giuliani’s mayorship, it’s hard not to see it as a blueprint for Trump. It’s not just its base authoritarianism. It’s the belligerent tone, explicit endorsement of police violence, and comically obvious corruption.

Mayor of the World

Like most Americans, I watched a lot of news after 9/11. And I was shocked about how much good press Giuliani got. It’s not that there was anything wrong with what he was doing. It’s just that there wasn’t anything to applaud. The banalest behavior was held up as something great. It was a clear example of how people will find something to applaud about you if they are determined to applaud you.

The worst example of this was when David Letterman came back on Late Show. I wanted to vomit when I heard it. And it hasn’t aged well:

And I just want to say one other thing about Mayor Giuliani. As this began, and if you were like me, and in many respects, God, I hope you’re not. But in this one small measure, if you’re like me, and you’re watching and you’re confused and depressed and irritated and angry and full of grief, and you don’t know how to behave and you’re not sure what to do and you don’t really… Because we’ve never been through this before… All you had to do at any moment was watch the Mayor. Watch how this guy behaved, watch how this guy conducted himself, watch what this guy did. Listen to what this guy said. Rudolph Giuliani is the personification of courage.

The Narrative

Yet this is the narrative that was formed. And it reached its apex with the Time Person of the Year. They named him “Mayor of the World.” At the time, I thought it was just an indication of how craven journalists have become the last few decades.

Time spent decades noting that “Man/Person of the Year” was not necessarily laudatory. It was clear, at least from an American perspective, that the person of the year should have been Osama bin Laden. But I do understand: Americans are so ignorant and closed-minded that they would have lost it over that choice.

Just before 9/11, the narrative in New York was that Giuliani was a racist authoritarian. His career was effectively over. The attacks that day were better for Giuliani than they were even for George W Bush.

But why Rudy Giuliani?! Well, because that was the narrative. It could have been anyone. But why not the mayor of New York? And all the bad things about him were totally in line with the way that Americans was thinking and doing.

It doesn’t change things that Rudy Giuliani was still an awful person and that the narrative was just that: a narrative — a convenient fiction to be used by society. It had nothing to do with the man himself.

Death of a Narrative

The narrative didn’t die overnight after people realized that Giuliani was ranting, “I will be the hero!” No. After the crisis, Giuliani destroyed the narrative like you lose a chess game: move by move, inch by inch.

During the calm, things slowly came out that showed Giuliani wasn’t such a great protector of New York. It truly is amazing that again and again people mistake tough-talk with competence. He was widely cited for taking terrorism seriously before 9/11. But this just wasn’t true. His planning for a terrorist attack was pathetic. Most notably, it included putting the Office of Emergency Management command center in the World Trade Center over the objections of people who actually knew about this kind of stuff.

He was one of the worst Republicans when it came to explicitly politicize 9/11. And in this, no one can be surprised by who he is today. For example, he said, “We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We’ve had one under Obama.”[1]

One of Joe Biden’s best-remembered lines is, “Rudy Giuliani — there’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9/11.” What was particularly crushing about the line was that it was true. If you look at his campaign for president, that is how he spoke. He tied everything to 9/11.

Rudy Hasn’t Changed

There is much more, of course. His history in the private sector over the last decade has been awful — including help to Purdue to keep selling Oxycontin. But the point is that for as long as most people have been aware of him, Rudy Giuliani has been terrible. What he’s been doing for Trump is nothing new.


[1] To be fair, this used to be common. Conservatives (publicly and in private discussions) would say, “Bush kept us safe!” The same people who just couldn’t shut up about 9/11 somehow forgot that it happened while Bush was president. And even if you give Bush a mulligan on that, there were many other deadly attacks.

Sanders Supporters: Warren Is Not the Enemy

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders
If you were to read my Twitter feed you might get the impression that I am against Bernie Sanders for president. This is not the case. I was a firm supporter of him in 2016 and I still support him now. It is just that I support Warren more.

Part of this is simply that I think she is the right candidate for this time. And I have been a supporter of hers for many years. But the bigger issue is simply practical. For what I consider mostly ridiculous reasons, the establishment of the Democratic Party hates Sanders. And I am certain that if he were to become the nominee, they would indeed destroy the party in order to save it.

But I know the counter to this. Sanders supporters say that young people and other disaffected voters will come out in droves to support Sanders if he is the nominee. When has this ever worked? Remember in 2016, there were lots of people claiming they didn’t need to vote for Clinton because people would rise up against a Trump presidency. How’s that going?

I don’t doubt that if Sanders is the Democratic nominee, some people will vote who wouldn’t normally. I suspect that if he is on the ballot, the Peace and Freedom Party will see a lot fewer votes for president. But none of this is going to make up for the apathy — and worse — of the Democratic establishment.

But if Sanders gets the nomination or his campaign simply takes off, I will be a full-throated supporter. But there are a lot of Sanders supporters who make it hard to love his candidacy.

Warren the Neoliberal!

I constantly see people referring to Warren as a neoliberal. This is simply not true. And it has made me think there is more truth to Jonathan Chait’s claim that the term has no meaning. How is the candidate pushing a wealth tax and a breakup of large corporations a neoliberal?

In truth, on a policy basis, there is very little that differentiates Warren from Sanders. The more thoughtful Sanders supporters focus on his rhetoric. And I’ll admit that I too prefer his rhetoric.

However, it is something that inclines me against him. It annoys me to hear him refer to himself as a Democratic Socialist when he clearly is not. He, like Warren, is a Social Democrat. That is to say: they are both just traditional liberals.

My political opinions are a little complicated to boil down to a single word. However, the only word that even comes close is “socialist.” That is to say, I am an actual socialist. So I’m not keen on people taking the label when it doesn’t actually apply to them. And it annoys me even more when people slam Warren for saying she’s a capitalist to her bones when Sanders embodies that principle even as he claims to be a socialist.

Warren the Republican!

Elizabeth WarrenI’ve also seen a lot of criticisms of Warren for once being a Republican. This is very strange to me. What happened to loving the sinner reborn?

What’s more, look at the history of the candidates. Over the years, Warren has moved steadily to the left for concrete policy reasons. Sanders, on the other hand, has moved to the right in order to accumulate political power in the United States.

I am absolutely not criticizing Sanders for this. This is the nature of politics. But it definitely goes against the narrative that Sanders is somehow pure and Warren is just a capitalist apologist.

The Practical Side of a Sanders Presidency

What is it that people think is going to happen if Sanders becomes president? He will not have as much political power in the Democratic party as Warren will. Are we to believe that the people will rise up and demand that the Democrats get behind him? This is absurd — very much like the claim that the people would rise up against Trump. I have yet to hear a compelling case for how Sanders will accomplish his goals.

(Of particular concern is Sanders’ claim that he won’t get rid of the filibuster. All his supporters say in reference to this is that he’s lying for tactical reasons. I find this unlikely. Most people tell the truth while running for president.)

There is no mass movement behind Sanders. In fact, if you look at polling numbers, you will see that he is largely benefiting exactly the same way that Joe Biden is. He has name recognition and people remember him from the 2016 election. Yes, he has a hard-core base of support, but most of his support is soft and comes from low-information voters.

Sadly, what is most likely to happen if Sanders became president is it the Democratic Party would largely shut down his agenda. In the end, he would be seen as an inefficient president and it would be another blight on the term socialism.

Where Sanders Shines

Bernie SandersThere is one area where I much prefer Sanders to Warren. In terms of international affairs, Sanders would be notably better. Sadly most of the things that I would love in that case would be extremely unpopular among the American people. So it would represent at best a short reprieve from some of the worst excesses of American foreign policy.

I don’t mean for this to sound negative towards Sanders. As I said, I liked him very much. I will be proud to have him as my president. But I’m pretty tired of the pro-Sanders argument that there is some kind of categorical difference between Warren and Sanders when there absolutely is not.

Recently, Michael Brooks on The Majority Report dismissed Warren’s wealth tax by noting that Sanders version is better. Well, first I doubt Sanders would even have pitched a wealth tax if it hadn’t been for Warren. Also, Warren’s wealth tax is actually bigger than Sanders. [This was written before Sanders came out with an actual wealth tax. -FM] But this is typical of a particular kind of Sanders supporter who just “knows” that Sanders is better than Warren without having any actual evidence. (Brooks has become absolutely hysterical in his hatred of Warren. It’s sad to see a smart guy lose it the way he has over the last couple of months.)

Sanders Needs to Up His Game

To some extent, I think the ridiculousness coming from some of Sanders’ most committed followers is due to the fact that his campaign is languishing. The threat of Warren has caused it to make some positive changes. But Sanders himself seems like he’s coasting

When you’re running for president, you really do need to excite people. And the truth is on the most important issues facing us, Warren is exciting people. Sanders is acting like he’s still running against one other candidate in 2016. Even worse: he’s acting like he’s the frontrunner.

Moving Forward Together

I’ll be happy if either Sanders or Warren gets the nomination. I have my preference (obviously), but that’s never made me attack the other.

My big concern these days is what happens if Warren takes off and Sanders crumbles. What is going to happen to the Sanders true believers? Is this going to be an even more absurd repeat of 2016 where they find every reason imaginable to explain why they “just can’t support Warren”? They certainly aren’t educating themselves about Warren except to cherry-pick anything they can find to claim that she is just a neoliberal they can dismiss. They just see her as “Not Bernie Sanders” and that means she’s bad.

I don’t understand any of it. A lot of Sanders supporters who acted as I did in 2016 are now acting like Jimmy Dore. And it’s even worse because these same people would be thrilled by Warren if Sanders weren’t running. To me, it’s simple: if you are excited about Bernie Sanders and you can’t get excited about Elizabeth Warren there’s something wrong with you. And it works the same way the other way around. It’s just that I haven’t see Warren supporters who spend much of their time complaining about Sanders (although I’m sure they’re out there).

Right now, Sanders’ campaign is in trouble. It’s been treading water for far too long. And this is the fault of Sanders. Warren’s rise has not been at the expense of Sanders [Polls since this was written indicate that he is losing support to Warren -FM]. So if you really want Sanders to be president, work on rising him up, not tearing Warren down. The best that will come of that is President Joe Biden.

Update

I just heard Michael Brooks claiming, based on a Sander-supporter caller who mentions that Warren being a woman makes him feel more comfortable voting for her, that the case Warren supporters are making for her is her gender. I’ve never heard that. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with why I support her. And I suspect it isn’t a case people are making for Warren but just another strawman to go with his cherry-picked issues. The main takeaway, however, is that Brooks has nothing by derision for Warren. If she becomes the nominee, all we are going to hear from him is, “Well, she’s better than Trump I suppose.” I don’t think he’ll go full Jimmy Dore, but I can’t rule it out.

Happy Labor Day?

Happy Labor Day!Happy labor day, comrades! Do you know why labor day is today and not on May Day — International Workers’ Day? Well, it’s because of the commies and anarchists. President Grover Cleveland was afraid of associating the international worker movements with the American movements. Of course, Cleveland wasn’t all that keen on the labor movement. But he made Labor Day a national holiday! Why? Because he was trying to make nice after totally screwing up in the government’s response to the Pullman Strike.

Pullman Company Screws Workers

This is an interesting but totally typical story. The Pullman Company made railroad cars. Following the Panic of 1893, Pullman lowered worker wages. There is nothing especially wrong with this. It can be much better than laying workers off. Of course, Pullman did lay off workers. It probably only lowered wages because it had an excuse. But all that was probably okay.

The problem was that the workers lived in a company town. They paid the company for rent and food and more. But when the company lowered wages, it did not lower the cost it was charging workers for their necessities. The workers were, not surprisingly, unhappy about this situation. But George Pullman refused to lower his company town prices and refused to even arbitrate the matter.

The Rich Are Never Allowed to Suffer

Eugene DebsNotice the situation here: Pullman thought that his workers should suffer because of the bad economic conditions. But he didn’t think he should suffer at all.

During the first years following our financial crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble, there was endless repetition that what the country needed was “shared sacrifice.” Obama loved the idea. But if you dug down even a little into these pleas, you saw that it was all sacrifice by the lower classes — none by the upper. For example: we heard constantly that we had to cut Social Security, but we couldn’t even mention raising the payroll tax cap. (That would be class warfare!) The bankers were bailed out without much fuss but homeowners were just left to their foreclosures.

And there were large cuts to social programs but only a tiny increase in the very top marginal tax rate and only because it was going up anyway. Then the Republicans took over Washington in 2017 and again lowered taxes on the wealthy. Shared sacrifice!

Pullman Workers Strike

More desperate than we are today, many of the workers joined Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union (ARU). And they went on strike. It got ugly. Union members eventually stopped railroad service in a number of places. Then Grover Cleveland used the interruption of mail delivery to justify sending in federal troops. This did eventually end the strike — at a loss of 30 striker lives and almost twice as many wounded. This is generally the way it goes.

The government does not like organized labor. It is too much of a threat to the status quo and the wealth of the elites. When organized, workers have enormous power. That was why, in 1947, we got the Taft–Hartley Act, which outlawed “jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing, closed shops, and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns.” That basically neutered unions — it was just a matter of time. Then, Reagan savaged unions and basically made the remaining union rights void through lack of enforcement.

Grover Cleveland Tries to Mollify Workers

Grover ClevelandIn 1894, of course, the government was scared. Grover Cleveland and the rest of the government wanted to make nice with organized labor. They probably had Louis XVI of France in mind and were trying to hedge their bets. So only six days after the strike ended, Cleveland signed the legislation making Labor Day a federal holiday.

As for old George Pullman, well, a national commission was appointed to look into the causes of the strike. It found Pullman culpable and said his company town was “un-American.” In 1898, the company was forced to sell off the land, which became part of Chicago. It didn’t matter to George Pullman, however; he died the year before.

Debs Is Held Accountable

After the strike, Debs was arrested and charged with conspiracy to obstruct the mail. You know: it wasn’t enough to have your strike crushed; Debs was a little man and so the government needed to crush him too. But Debs was represented by one of the great heroes of that period: Clarence Darrow. Darrow argued that Debs didn’t conspire to do anything and that it was the railroad that conspired against the workers.

(This is something that doesn’t seem to be understood by my libertarian enemies who almost to a man hate unions: if workers aren’t able to organize, it isn’t fair; the company management is very organized.)

The prosecutors knew they were going to lose the case, so they dropped the conspiracy charge. Debs was later convicted on the lesser charge of violating a Supreme Court injunction and was given six months in jail. (This too is always what happens; if the government wants to get you, it will.)

Debs Becomes a Socialist

Although he entered jail what we might call a liberal, Debs left a socialist. While in prison he read a whole bunch of Marx and that changed his outlook. He was also influenced by visits from Victor L Berger. Along with him and others, Debs founded the Social Democratic Party of America. He went on to run for president as a socialist five times — the last time in 1920, he did from prison. He was serving a ten-year sentence for violating the government’s new favorite bullshit law to attack anyone they don’t like, the Espionage Act of 1917. He violated it by giving a speech that “obstructed recruiting” for World War I.

Do I need to note that what he was doing is the very definition of free speech?

Labor Day Was Hard Won

In 1921, The Bridgemen’s Magazine wrote:

Labor Day evolved from the aspiration of the labor movement; it was not handed down as a present. Its recognition as a legal holiday was won by labor: it was not given as a present.

So enjoy your Labor Day. But don’t forget the suffering and loss that it represents. And don’t stand for people showing such great disrespect to it. We know conservatives hate the labor movement. We know that many so called liberals are at best apathetic towards the labor movement. But the least we can demand is that they all show a modicum of respect one day of the year. Now go enjoy your barbecue or whatever.

Should Russia Have Ever Been in the G8?

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump

Trump constantly embarrasses the US on the world stage. But that is nowhere as true as when he acts as Putin’s lap dog. This was on full display at the Group of Seven meeting last weekend. He not only begged to let Russia back into the group publicly, he did it in private too.

To our friends overseas, it must seem as though Americans elect presidents randomly. Sure, we occasionally elect someone like Obama, but that’s more than countered by the election of people like Trump. And Bush Jr. And Reagan. And Nixon. Really, you have to go back to Eisenhower to find a Republican president who isn’t an embarrassment for one reason or another. (Bush Sr wasn’t a fool; but he was a spook.)

Russia Isn’t a Major Economic Player

But it got me thinking. Why was Russia ever in the Group of Eight? China isn’t. And I think there’s a much better case to be made for China. The Group of Whatever is about economic development. China is the second-largest economy in the world. (The largest if you look at the economy based on purchasing power.) But I get why China is not included. I just don’t get why Russia ever way.

Let’s look at some economic data of the G7 along with Russian:

Country GDP Total
(trillions)
GDP Per Capita
(thousands)
USA $19.5 $59.9
Japan $4.9 $38.2
Germany $3.7 $44.7
UK $2.6 $38.2
France $2.6 $39.8
Italy $1.9 $32.0
Russia $1.6 $10.8

There are three countries not in the G7 that have higher GDPs. Of these, India has a very low per capita GDP. But both China and Brazil have per capita GDPs that are roughly the same as Russia’s. So why not them? I can’t determine any reason why Russia would be allowed in while these two wouldn’t. Must be a nuclear power? Then why not India or China? Must be a “free market” economy? Then why not India or Brazil (and let’s face it: China)?

It’s clear from the table above, that Russia really doesn’t fit into the Group of Whatever. It makes far more sense to include China.

Why Was Russia in the G8?

It seems clear that Russia was only allowed into the G8 because Boris Yeltsin was being rewarded for all his neoliberal changes to the Russian economy that screwed over the vast majority of Russian citizens. And given that this is partly to blame for the rise of Vladimir Putin, it makes a certain amount of internal logic to let Russian back in. But just because the Group of Whatever is a sham neoliberal project designed by the most powerful countries to keep everyone else down doesn’t mean the rest of us need to go along with it.

Russia is a two-bit economic power that only matters because of their nuclear arsenal. The group itself serves no ethical purpose as Russia’s previous inclusion shows.

The Real Reason Trump Wants to Buy Greenland

Nuuk, Greenland

Like most of us, I am sick of hearing, reading, or talking about Trump. Friends will ask if I’ve heard of the latest outrage he’s committed, and I’ll usually answer, “No.” What’s the point? It’ll either be bigoted, ignorant, dishonest, or utterly destructive to civilization’s future. Usually all of the above.

It’s standard-brand Republican politics, as practiced for at least 40 years, but with more boorishness. Trump’s fans love him for these things, and I have no interest in trying to discern their motives. Some sort of psychological disorder, no doubt, and not a particularly compelling one.

So I was overjoyed to recently read that Trump has been pestering aides with questions about whether the United States can buy Greenland. That’s the kind of amusing, harmless stupidity I hope for from Republican administrations. Like Bush II mispronouncing “nuclear” or Reagan telling Gorbachev that if aliens attacked Earth, America and the USSR would work together.

Even better were the responses of semi-sane people. The Guardian had a fun article quoting Greenlanders and Danes, both politicians and average citizens. (Greenland is self-governing, but still technically a protectorate of Denmark, which provides what military defense the island requires.) Their comments ranged from the sensible (“Why on Earth would anybody want to be an American colony?”) to incredulous (“It must be a joke!”). A member of Denmark’s “nationalist” (read: anti-immigrant) party said, “It is definitive proof that [Trump] has gone crazy.” Again, that’s the far-right, anti-immigrant party speaking.

Note to Danes: it’s not a joke, and he’s been crazy for a looooong time before this.

What the Danes Have Told Me

We have several old Danish friends. (When Mrs James left for college, her father developed empty-nest syndrome and had a series of exchange students; she’s stayed in touch with the ones she liked best.) One spent a few years living in Greenland, another is a communications specialist in the navy.

The com specialist has observed in the past that Denmark and every other nation with Arctic territory maintains a naval presence in the Arctic Ocean. “Basically,” she said, “we just sail around and let each other know we’re there.” Reduced thickness of sea ice has made it possible for oil companies to put oil rigs in places where, before, the ice would crush them like tinfoil. As some of the sites oil companies are interested in lie well offshore, the question comes up of whom has sovereignty over which international waters. “I like it when we sail up north,” she told us. “It’s not so damn hot.”

The man who lived in Greenland left because he broke up with his girlfriend there. Besides, he said, he was drinking too much. The largest town has 17,000 people, and in smaller ones it’s common to stock up goods for the winter before basically hunkering down. If one’s relationship is going sour, there really isn’t much else to do but drink. (Rationing would be key here.)

His response to Trump’s proposal was the simple text message “Why?!”

Seriously, Why Would America Want Greenland?

Several writers have addressed this question, with varying levels of seriousness. A columnist covering European affairs for Bloomberg actually typed about “reviving the market in sovereign territories, which once made America great.” Brian Kahn, usually a environmental writer for Gizmodo UK, said the idea was “plainly, batshit,” but addressed some of the possible geopolitical advantages (world’s largest supply of freshwater, mineral deposits under a melting ice sheet, military location, etc.) My favorite was by Matthew Walther at MSN, who noted that Greenland is essential territory in the boardgame Risk:

So far the Danes are insisting that they are not interested in a sale. We should remind them that they are spending $600 million a year to subsidize the fantasy that the most remote part of North America is actually European. We should also offer them an absolutely ridiculous amount of money — paying off their entire national debt, a match of whatever their GDP is for the next 20 years, the rights to the next five Super Bowls, Trump’s second-favorite son changing his name to “Erik.” As far as the Greenlanders themselves go, they could get the Armageddon deal: no taxes ever, for the rest of their lives.

No one is going to feel bad about the price tag in 50 years when Helge Damsgaard and her Sirius Patrol shield-mate Kaj Knudsen successfully defeat Russian forces off the coast of Uunartoq Qeqertaq armed with only a pair of laser axes.

Right you are, sir. Yet, just to pretend, let’s look at the “serious” reasons one-by-one.

Seriously, These Reasons Make No Sense

Mineral deposits/oil reserves: Greenland does have these. So why would Denmark have any conceivable reason to sell? They’re a perfectly wealthy country, with a diversified economy (and a better standard of living than that of most Americans) — they don’t need our money. Their asking price would be well what the territory is worth and more; it’d be cheaper for us to just bomb some suffering nation and steal their stuff.

Strategic military location: we already have bases in Greenland. Denmark is part of NATO, as we are (for now). In fact, one of our planes once caught fire and crashed while carrying huge atomic bombs. The bombs didn’t go off (these near-misses have happened more often than most people know), but the crash spread toxic radiation over a wide area. Needless to say, Greenlanders were not pleased.

Besides, we’re not living in 1964, Dr. Strangelove days anymore, when B-52s were our primary nuclear delivery threat: we have submarines that can shoot missiles from anywhere, and ICBMs which can shoot missiles to everywhere. One decommissioned silo in South Dakota, now the Minuteman National Historic Site, features a giant blast door painted by USAF staffers to resemble a Domino’s Pizza box. The tagline: “Worldwide Delivery In 30 Minutes Or Less / Or Your Next One Is Free.”

That’s from a Cold-War era missile silo. I promise you today’s missiles go much faster.

Water: Neither Trump nor any other Republican cares remotely about America’s drinking water supply (ask Flint, Newark, etc). If most of the water on Earth gets poisoned, rich people will have access to the last good stuff.

What Trump Does Care About, Bigly

Once you count territorial possessions, the United States is Earth’s fourth-largest country, geographically, behind Russia, Canada, and China. Purchasing Greenland would make us a solid #2.

Would anyone really put such an idiotic motive past Trump? He wants the biggest military parade and biggest wall. He lies about having the biggest audiences and largest fortune and greatest electoral victory. (If Trump consciously lies, which I doubt; I suspect he thinks that whatever he thinks is true.) He’s said that the World Trade Center attacks made his Trump Tower the biggest building in downtown Manhattan. He brags about TV ratings and Twitter followers. Let’s not forget his ridiculously oversized neckties.

Maybe this is some kind of Freudian thing, or simply the twisted mindset of aspirationally rich people — keeping up with the Joneses taken to psychotic extremes. I don’t particularly care. Serial killers are far more interesting than rich people (and ultimately far less dangerous).

In any case, this explanation makes the most sense to me. So I’m officially calling it the best. And the biggest.

Charlie Pierce Can Torture With the Best of Them

The Torture of Prometheus - Gioacchino AsseretoCharlie Pierce wrote:

“‘It’s hard. It’s really, really hard because my husband died by gun suicide,’ said Judy Schneider-Wallace, a former schoolteacher from Seattle.”

Okay, Pierce: bring it, you’ve already broken my heart past repair.

“She and her husband, Paul, were double victims of the economic collapse and of the financial-services vampires who both caused it and then profited by looting the lives they’d already ruined.”

No, Charlie! No more!

“They were in the process of renegotiating their mortgage with Wells Fargo, a process that brought grief to thousands of people across the country whose personal economies already were in tatters.”

Okay. I’m far past the point of being able to handle this.

“While they were wrestling with financial ruin, Paul shot himself to death on the first day of school.”

No. You cannot do that, Pierce. You cannot lead readers down that path to a place so gruesome and grim, even though it is the truth.

I would never do so. And that’s why I’m a baseball writer and Charlie Pierce is, funny names for politicians aside, a real writer. I don’t always agree with him, but does he ever leave pretenders like Chait or Yglesias in the damn dust?

My wife is good at talking to people and hearing their stories; it’s never been a thing I’m skilled at.

Why Conservatives Are Calling El Paso Massacre Terrorism

Ted CruzTed Cruz said that the El Paso massacre was “a heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy.” This is representative of what I’ve seen throughout the day from conservatives. And I’ve seen a lot of liberals applaud what seems like a change coming from conservatives that used to believe these things only happened because of insanity.

But isn’t it obvious that calling this terrorism is just the newest way for conservatives to ignore the main problem that there are too many guns floating around?

After the Sandy Hook massacre, many on the left (including me) discussed the effect of mental illness and access to care. That’s because the shooter was, in fact, mentally ill. But conservatives quickly picked up on this idea. “The problem isn’t guns! It’s the mentally ill!”

In general, this narrative has worked with most mass shootings because most of the perpetrators end up dead — often at their own hands. It’s harder to do that in the case of the El Paso massacre because the perpetrator survived.

But it doesn’t matter whether you want to say that some guy started killing a bunch of people because he was insane, just bad, or a terrorist. Each of these cases reduces a systemic problem to one of bad actors. If you accept this idea then there is no point in trying to change the environment. Instead, you just have to get the bad actor.

Don’t Expect Change

If this causes any changes in the law, it will be around the edges. But even this is unlikely to happen. In a few days, after reporters stop asking politicians about this, the conservatives will go back the NRA line that universal background checks are one step from tyranny.

And even if we did get background checks, I wonder how much good it would do. Guns are widely available outside of legal channels. We are decades past the point where minor tinkering around the edges is going to do much good.

Not that I’m against trying. But like I said: nothing is going to change.

It’s bad to watch Ted Cruz and the rest of the conservatives in this country stonewalling against doing anything about gun violence. But it’s worse to watch that while the nation gives them credit for being so reasonable.

Why Has Matt Yglesias Forgotten Political Science?

Matt YglesiasOne thing I’ve learned over years of blogging (Coming up on our 10 year anniversary!) is that it is wrong to be vague about things you criticize. More than wrong, it’s boring. You see this all the time with conservatives. “Libtards are saying white men should be killed!” Really? Who is saying this? So I find it a little worrying that I say this: Matt Yglesias has been arguing for the Democrats to nominate Joe Biden.

I’ve been following Yglesias’ on Twitter and on The Weeds podcast. And he has this overarching idea that Elizabeth Warren is more popular than she should be and that the people who support her shouldn’t. And below all this is, I think, the idea that she can’t beat Trump. You know: because people don’t actually support her ideas. The people (as though Yglesias has any more of a clue what “the people” want than I do) just want to get rid of Trump and don’t actually want any structural reform of the American economic system.

For all I know, Matt Yglesias will vote for Elizabeth Warren. But he’s fond of the “hot take.” He loves to play the informed iconoclast. So I’m not arguing anything about what’s in his heart. But his “take” on Warren seems to be ill-advised.

Why Does Matt Yglesias Think Warren Will Lose?

Elizabeth WarrenDoes he really think that people are going to choose to vote for Trump over Warren because of these policy issues? She’s talking about making structural changes to the economy when Trump is talking about nuclear war with Iran. I wonder how the American people will vote?!

But what really bugs me about this is that we have loads of political science data on this question. Unless 2020 is somehow completely different from every other election for almost 50 years, Trump will win or lose based on the economy.

And it’s worse than that. The economy is the most important thing. Pretty much everything else runs against Trump. If the economy slows down, Trump is toast. It doesn’t matter what Democrat runs against him.

On the other hand, if the economy heats up to a point that none of us can even imagine now, no Democrat will be able to beat him.

Remember: my simple political science model predicted that Trump would win in 2016. Trump’s election to president doesn’t change the underlying political science.

Why Has Matt Yglesias Forgotten Political Science?

This political science is exactly the kind of stuff that Vox writers live and breath. So why does Yglesias seem to have forgotten it all?

I suspect that it all comes down to him playing the part of a journalist rather than living the part — you know, where he actually looks for the truth?

There’s not much point in focusing on political science since it doesn’t change much over time. Instead, focus on your own ideas about electability!

And that’s what Yglesias is doing. He’s far too smart to fall into the trap of thinking “electable” means “white man.” But he isn’t so smart that he can’t fall into the same trap with a more sophisticated notion of electability.

But really: it isn’t that sophisticated. Despite all evidence, he’s assuming that people vote based upon policy rather than what we know: people base their policy ideas on the candidate they vote for.

This is sad to see because, despite it all, Matt Yglesias is still an interesting and insightful writer. His problem is simply that he, like far lesser journalist, is being blinded by the narrative he has landed on.