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In defense of democratic socialism – posted 6/23/2019

June 23, 2019 Leave a comment

Since there is no shortage of badmouthing socialism, I wanted to outline the road that led me to support for democratic socialism.

Growing up in the Philadelphia area in the 1960’s I was acutely aware of economic inequality and racism. If you got around the city and suburbs, there was a stark contrast between the ghetto of North Philadelphia and the Main Line. It was a chasm even then and I did not understand why there was such a disparity between geographic areas not so far apart.

It was the 1960’s and the War in Vietnam was raging. It was a dominant background reality to all our lives. Everyday featured body counts on TV. The logic for why American troops were in Vietnam was a mystery. Persuasive rationales were missing. Vietnam was a forerunner to Iraq where wars ceased to have any credible justification. The Movement and the counterculture emerged. To be woke was to question authority.

As a young person looking for answers, I gravitated to books. I wanted to understand our society and I was not getting good answers from the mass media of the time. I read widely and I would name two writers who led me to question fundamental things: Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.

Both articulated a critique of the war in Vietnam that went beyond seeing the war as an accident or a mistake. They saw the war as a product of a profit system that valued money over people. In their writings, they placed the Vietnam war in a context that explained why the United States kept intervening militarily in the Third World. They also offered a critical perspective on U.S.history that was new to me.

In college, I had my first opportunity to read books about socialism. I had a friend, Kevin, who was a member of the radical student group SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. Kevin gave me a list of books to read that were not on any college syllabus. I learned about labor’s untold story as well as the history of socialism and 20th century socialist thought.

Since this is such contested terrain, let me highlight how I see socialism. It has been best summarized by a labor educator, John McDermott:

“Socialism is the movement for the emancipation of working people from the fetters of authoritarian government – this means every kind of authoritarian government – of the left, the right, the center; of capitalist, of communist; of church; of state; of corporation; of expert; and of zealot.”

Socialism is about working class self-rule. It is not about some bureaucracy ruling over workers. Nor is it government ownership of the means of production. Socialism is about more political and economic democracy. The working class is a subjugated class under capitalism. Working people have little control over critical decisions that affect their lives. Over the last 40 years, working people have seen their collective power erode, consistent with the weakening of unions and the expansive greed of our ruling class.

Implicit is the underlying reality of class struggle. Social classes compete for power, wealth and influence. For almost all of human history, working people have been exploited by their masters, whether they were monarchs, feudal lords or capitalists.

In America, a small number of people, the 1%, have amassed a huge amount of money, billions of dollars. The money has been used to buy political power, politicians, and control over our collective political agenda. That agenda has promoted minimalist change guaranteed to protect the profits of the 1%. Nothing too “out there” will get placed on this agenda. The 1% wants economic stability to safeguard its money. It is not an agenda designed to address the human needs of the American people.

The ruling class guards against the possibility of any significant progressive reform happening. It is like our society is a car permanently stuck in neutral.

We only need to look at climate change. According to science, we only have a small window of time to turn things around (12 years) before we will face catastrophic consequences. Where is the urgency? Where is the appreciation for science? There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists about climate change but we continue plodding, with blinders on.

I blame capitalism and the short-sighted pursuit of profit by the fossil fuel industry. You might think that these greedy capitalists would recognize the need for a long-term perspective on climate but that is totally lacking. Instead they still try to manufacture doubt about the science of climate change. The crazy thing is the capitalists along with all of us will have to live with the consequences of climate inaction. This is a betrayal of the future.

You can go down the list of problems we face – racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, the environment, reproductive rights, and immigration. Each problem has its own specificity but all are deeply rooted in a history where capitalism has failed over generations to adequately address them.

Socialism is not opposed to reforms. Ideas like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, $15 minimum wage, and free college tuition at public colleges and universities are building blocks moving in the direction of a socialist vision. Socialists are strong supporters of these reforms while also being aware that they are only steps in the direction of a radical change.

Some of the critiques of socialism complain that it is unrealistically about “free stuff”. I think arguments like this ignore context. We live in a society where the cost of education has skyrocketed. A generation of young people is now burdened and ultra-stressed because they are burdened with absurd levels of debt. Such debt is not necessary and a socialist agenda needs to offer support to the struggling students.

Socialism, like capitalism, does have a dark side to its history and socialists must not whitewash this history. Stalinism and other examples where human rights have ben trampled should be acknowledged, not dishonestly buried. There are no perfect examples out there and there never will be.

Still, democratic socialists have learned from the past and part of the learning is the importance of democracy and individual rights. Contrary to what some may think, there is a libertarian tradition in socialism. History shows the importance of the rule of law and something like the Bill of Rights, regardless of whether your social system is capitalist or socialist. When I think of the libertarian socialist tradition, I think of Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Victor Serge and Rosa Luxemburg.

Albert Einstein, a socialist, once wrote:

“The crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.”

Einstein bemoaned the crippling of the social consciousness of individuals. He favored the development of a sense of community and responsibility toward humanity rather than glorification of power and success.

The moral superiority of socialism is that it offers the possibility of a good life for everyone, not just an elite who hog money, resources, and advantages. Socialism stands for the idea that everyone should be able to lead a life of dignity, accomplishment, security and satisfaction. Our extreme economic inequality is not an inevitability, rather it is an opening for democratic socialism. As Rosa Luxemburg once wrote, we either transition to socialism or we regress into barbarism.

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A 2020 Worry Highlighted by the Mueller Report – posted 6/16/2019

June 16, 2019 Leave a comment

Because so much has been written about the Mueller Report, I decided to read it myself. After wading through, I think most commentary is missing at least one critical point: our 2020 presidential election stands at high risk of a repeat performance of Russian election interference.

I think the scope of the Russian election interference has been underestimated and poorly understood. The interference went deeper and was more sophisticated than has been generally recognized.

The Russian team had a management group, a graphics department, a data analysis department, a search-engine optimization department and an information-technology department. They used data-driven targeting and analysis to assess how content was received and they used that information to refine their message to enhance effectiveness.

The Russian strategy aimed to harden views rather to change minds. The approach was geared toward confirmation bias of those with identified views. It is admittedly difficult to quantify the effect of the Russian interference.

The Russians spent tens of millions of dollars starting in 2014 to try and influence American public opinion. The interference principally came from the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian organization funded by Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin and companies he controlled. To quote the Mueller Report:

“Using fictitious personae, IRA employees operated social media accounts and group pages designed to attract U.S. audiences. These groups and accounts, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. Interests. Over time these social media accounts became a means to reach large U.S. audiences.”

The actions of the IRA are well-described in Mueller’s court indictment of the thirteen Russian defendants. IRA employees travelled to the United States in 2014 on an intelligence-gathering mission to obtain information and photographs for social media posts.

By early to mid-2016, the IRA started to support the Trump campaign while disparaging candidate Hillary Clinton. Those efforts continued through the election. The IRA had online conversations with Americans who became unwitting pawns. The Russians persuaded Americans to hold rallies in support of Trump and even purchased costumes to depict Hillary Clinton in a prison jumpsuit.

The Russians established servers and VPNs based in the United States to mask the location of the individuals involved. They also utilized U.S.-based email accounts linked to fake or stolen U.S. identity documents to back the online identities. The deception was about creating the impression that their activities were being carried out by Americans.

The Mueller Report says that by the end of 2016 election, the IRA had the ability to reach millions of Americans through their social media accounts. The IRA had hundreds of individuals working on its online operation. In November 2017, a Facebook representative testified that Facebook had identified 470 IRA-controlled Facebook accounts that collectively made 80,000 posts between January 2015 and August 2017. Facebook estimated the IRA reached as many as 126 million people through its Facebook accounts.

In January 2018, Twitter announced that it had identified 50,258 Russia-linked troll accounts with 3,814 directly linked to the IRA. It had plans to notify 677,775 users who either followed, retweeted or liked a tweet from one of the troll accounts.

I cite these statistics just to illustrate that the Russian election interference was not a small operation. And this does not even consider the part of the Russian campaign where they stole emails from the Democrats and parceled them out to Wikileaks for periodic strategic distribution.

Among U.S.intelligence agencies there is no disagreement about these facts. The FBI, CIA and National Security Agency all concluded in a rare public assessment in early 2017 that “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” and he did so in part to help elect Trump.

For anyone concerned about the security and integrity of our elections, the 2016 election is more than a warning. It is an object lesson. Given the success experienced by the Russians and the lack of adverse consequences for their interference, I would submit that we are inviting them to do it again in 2020. It is probably fair to assume that the Russians used the 2016 election as a trial run to explore our electoral vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, President Trump has a history of denying and minimizing the Russian interference. In spite of the evidence, Trump has blamed the DNC, China and a 400 pound man. It is hard to forget his performance when he stood on the stage with Putin and said he chose to believe Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denials over U.S. intelligence. Still, to this day, he misses what is at stake: the integrity of our elections. Trump’s inaction around election security provides an opening for more Russian interference.

Our election infrastructure clearly remains vulnerable to cyber-attack in 2020. To quote Alex Halderman, a voting security expert from the University of Michigan:

“Many states are making progress, but the progress is patchy and there are major gaps…Forty states are using computer technology that is a decade old or more and often they are not receiving software updates or security patches.”

Outdated voting machines and lack of verified paper ballots are just a part of the problem. New technologies can produce deep fake audio and video clips which can misrepresent what a candidate is actually saying. For example, deep fake can synthesize an individual’s voice, swap one person’s face onto another person’s body in a video or alter words spoken. Witness the recent Nancy Pelosi fake tape.

Candidates can then confront the problem of having to respond to fraudulent misrepresentations, hoping to get the public to believe their assertions.

A big problem is that candidates may lack the money for cyber-defense. I have read that only four out of all the Democratic presidential candidates have secured email systems.

In sounding this alarm, I would not deny that the United States has its own long history of attempting to influence foreign presidential elections. By one estimate I saw, the U.S. attempted to influence the election of foreign countries 81 times between 1946 and 2000. And that is only up to 2000! Malcolm X might have seen this as an example of the chickens coming home to roost but we need to do everything possible to shore up our cyber defenses.

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, independent, liberal or socialist, all of us have a stake in a fair election process. At both the federal and state level, more money and effort needs to go into election security than has happened to date. As we have seen, elections can be close and foreign interference can make some kind of a difference.

A repeat of 2016 in 2020 would only serve the Russian objective of spreading mistrust toward the candidates and the integrity of the political system.

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Andrew Jackson, Harriet Tubman, and the $20 bill – posted 6/9/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/16/2019

June 10, 2019 Leave a comment

Back in 2016, President Obama’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Harriet Tubman would appear on the $20 bill. She would have been the first African-American woman ever to be depicted on our currency.

The idea was that the Tubman redesign would have been released in 2020 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which extended the right to vote to women.

Lew’s plan has now run into a roadblock. The current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said that the Tubman bill would not be released in 2020. He has said that the Tubman redesign most likely will not be until 2026 at the earliest. When pressed at a congressional hearing by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass) about the redesign of the $20 bill, Mnuchin responded that the Treasury Department was concentrating on anti-counterfeit measures.

Since it is an honor to appear on such widely circulated currency as a $20 bill, I thought it would be worthwhile to look a little deeper at both Jackson and Tubman to compare and contrast. Who were they?

Andrew Jackson was our seventh president, elected in 1828. He gained fame as a general in the United States Army, especially for defeating the British in 1815 in the Battle of New Orleans, insuring that the United States would maintain control of land it acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. He had a reputation for toughness and he earned the nickname “Old Hickory”.

Jackson had an image as a defender of the common man and as someone who fought a corrupt aristocracy. Unfortunately, American history often seems to undergo a sugarcoating where essential truths are obscured or buried. This is certainly true with Jackson as pointed out by the historian, Howard Zinn.

“If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history you will find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people – not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.”

Andrew Jackson was the most aggressive enemy of Native American people in American history. He considered Native Americans savages. As president, he engineered the forced expulsion of all Native people east of the Mississippi to the new “Indian country”. He had a long military career fighting Indians. In 1801, he took command of the Tennessee militia as a colonel and he drove the Muskogee people out of Georgia. He led four wars against the Muskogee, Creek and Seminoles in Georgia and Florida.

Jackson encouraged white squatters to move onto Indian land. Then he told the Indians that the government could not remove the settlers. His modus operandi was then to tell the Indians they had to cede the land or be wiped out.

In 1814 in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Jackson’s troops killed 800 of the 1000 Red Stick warriors he faced, losing only 50 of his own troops. Jackson’s troops fashioned horse bridle reins from the skin stripped from the Indians killed.

As President, Jackson was able to gain passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Indian removal was Jackson’s top legislative priority and he used the Act to extinguish Indian title to lands in the southeastern United States. The Choctaw, the Seminoles, the Chickasaw and the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their lands.

The Cherokee brought lawsuits and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Cherokees’ favor in 1832 in the case of Worcester v Georgia. Jackson ignored the Court’s mandate which barred Georgia from intruding on Cherokee land. This led to the infamous Trail of Tears, essentially a Cherokee death march in 1838.

Among the Cherokee, an estimated 4,000 people died in the Trail of Tears. The Cherokees lacked adequate clothing and food for the journey. The march began in the winter and many traveled on foot with no shoes or moccasins.

Jackson’s expulsion of Native Americans in the Deep South cleared the way for cotton plantations and the slave economy. Jackson himself owned a 1000 acre cotton plantation located near Nashville Tennessee known as the Hermitage. He was an active slaveholder.

By the time he was elected president he owned 160 slaves. He is the only U.S. president who personally drove a slave coffle.

As for Harriet Tubman, she was born into slavery. In 1849, she escaped. During the following decade she made at least 13 secret expeditions into Maryland to rescue slaves. She led 70 people out of bondage. She is probably the person most famously connected to the Underground Railroad.

Tubman usually travelled at night, guided by the North Star. Her missions were usually in the winter when the nights were longer and people were inside more. Because of her courage and daring, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison nicknamed her “Moses”.

Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 which greatly increased the penalties and risks for Tubman. Bounty hunters pursued fugitive slaves into the North as well as in the South.

On one of her last missions into Maryland, Tubman rescued her aging parents. She had earlier saved her brother. She was a master of subterfuge, carried a revolver, and she knew how to use it. She was an associate and friend of John Brown. She helped recruit men for Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry.

During the Civil War, Tubman supported the Union forces and served as a scout and a spy for the U.S. Army. She became the first woman to lead an armed assault in that war. In the Combahee River Raid she played a role in rescuing more than 750 slaves.

Later in her life. Tubman became a supporter of women’ suffrage. She travelled widely to speak out in support of women’ right to vote.

Interestingly, the Treasury Department has no records explaining why Jackson ended up on the $20 bill. He has appeared on the 20 since 1928 when he replaced Grover Cleveland. A strong case can be made for his removal from the $20 bill based on his well-documented history of racism toward Native Americans and African-Americans. I think such removal is long overdue.

By any intellectually honest reckoning, this is not a hard call. Harriet Tubman belongs on the $20 bill. Unlike Andrew Jackson, she earned it and deserves it.

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The underappreciated heroism of John Quincy Adams – posted 6/1/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/9/2019

June 1, 2019 1 comment

John Quincy Adams has been generally panned by historians as an undistinguished president. Our sixth president, he won the presidency in 1824 after no candidate received a majority of electoral votes. Adams also did not win a majority of the popular vote. The House of Representatives decided the election in Adams’ favor. Adams became the first elected president not to obtain a plurality of the national popular vote.

During his presidency, Adams proposed major infrastructure programs including building roads, bridges, canals, and a national university. He particularly supported science and he wanted to build a national observatory. Little got passed. Adams lost the presidency after one term to Andrew Jackson.

What is interesting about Adams is that he did not retire from politics after his presidential defeat. Adams began a new career as a Congressman. He ran for Congress from the Plymouth district in Massachusetts. At the age of 63, in 1830, he got elected. He proceeded to serve in Congress for 17 years until his death.

Besides being a president, a secretary of state, a Massachusetts senator, a United States senator, ambassador to Great Britain and minister to the courts of Russia, Prussia, Holland, Sweden, Portugal and France, Adams was named to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Madison and was confirmed but he declined the position. Adams had an unmatched resume.

In what is most unusual in U.S. history at least as far as presidents are concerned, Adams’ work as a Congressman turned out to be his most extraordinary public service, surpassing anything he did as President.

In Congress, Adams led the fight against slavery and the Slave Power. His contribution to the anti-slavery fight has been unrecognized and underrated in its importance.

When Adams got elected to Congress in 1830, slavery was very deeply entrenched in American society. It was a dominant institution and the mainstream view was that slavery could never be abolished. In his wonderful book, Arguing About Slavery, William Lee Miller put the politics of the early 19th century in perspective:

“Five of the first seven presidents were slaveholders; for thirty-two of the nation’s first thirty-six years, forty of its first forty-eight, fifty of its first sixty-four, the nation’s president was a slaveholder. The powerful office of Speaker of the House was held by a slaveholder for twenty-eight of the nation’s first thirty-five years. The president pro tem of the Senate was virtually always a slaveholder. The majority of cabinet members and – very important – of justices on the Supreme Court were slaveholders.”

This was the world abolitionists faced. As of 1830, they were a tiny minority and they were viewed as “vile fanatics” and “fiends of hell”. Mainstream opinion in the South and the North despised and scorned the abolitionists. Hardly any Congressmen were willing to come forward and support abolition of slavery. Overwhelmingly, it was seen as a political loser.

Even in the North in the mid-1830’s, mobs broke up abolitionist meetings while abolitionist speakers faced rocks, eggs, lashings and clubbing. In 1837, a mob in Alton, Illinois, killed Elijah Lovejoy, a preacher-editor, who wrote against slavery. Lovejoy had been trying to defend his printing press.

It was into these headwinds that John Quincy Adams tried to introduce petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. He was almost alone in Congress in speaking against slavery.

To his everlasting credit, Adams doggedly fought the slave interests. Tirelessly and repeatedly for years, he brought up petitions from his constituents and others demanding an end to slavery. He met a stone wall of opposition. Southern Congressmen invoked a gag rule. For years, they had the votes to prohibit any discussion about the abolition of slavery. From 1836 to 1844, anti-slavery petitions could not be heard. The House tabled all petitions directed against slavery.

Adams, in part, saw the battle as a matter of free speech. He hated the idea that the House could bar discussion of a national issue. As a master of parliamentary procedure and a creative legal mind, Adams drove the Southern Congressmen crazy. Always looking for an opening, he brought petitions on behalf of women and on behalf of slaves. Southern Congressmen would give no standing to slaves and they were horrified by Adams’ actions.

The Southern Congressmen began to attack Adams personally. Many rose to publicly condemn and disparage him. A movement started to censure Adams or even expel him from the House. Only two Congressmen, Caleb Cushing and Levi Lincoln, rose to defend Adams during the 1837 censure debate.

Adams used the controversy to defend himself and he prepared days of arguments against the slave trade and against ownership of slaves. Cleverly, he turned the censure motion into an attack on slavery. He also forced House members to consider the bad precedent of censure for free speech on the House floor.

The House effort to censure Adams failed. On February 8, 1837, the House tabled the motion to censure Adams. Adams’ stature as a former president and his brilliant parliamentary tactics created divisions among his opponents. Unfortunately, the House never accepted Adams’ argument that slaves had a right to petition Congress. That right continued to belong only to free white persons.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that during this period in 1841, Adams successfully represented the defendants at the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Amistad. In that epic case, memorialized in the Steven Spielberg movie, Adams argued that African slaves who had mutinied on their ship should not be deported to Cuba and should be considered free. Adams won the slaves their freedom, arguing that the U.S. had prohibited the international slave trade (even though slavery was accepted internally).

Adams was 74 at the time he argued the Amistad case. He had not appeared as a lawyer before any court for 31 years. Over two days, he orally argued for seven and a half hours. He never billed anyone for his time on the case.

I think there are several reasons why Adams’ anti-slavery advocacy has not been more acknowledged. The time period of Adams’ tenure as a Congressmen is a relative dead zone in American history. The Civil War sucks up so much attention that the 1830’s and 1840’s is not much taught in American history.

Also, I think, compared to presidents, not much attention is typically paid to the history of Congress. Abolitionists, who were activists outside of institutions, like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and William Lloyd Garrison, garnered more credit for their actions.

Adams went out on a moral limb at a time when he was virtually alone. And he did it continuously for years in the face of massive opposition.

During the fight over his House censure, Adams said that he hoped he would be remembered as “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed”. How cool a legacy is that!

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