Archive for July, 2021

Banning critical race theory is like banning abolitionist education – posted 7/27/2021

July 27, 2021 Leave a comment

One puzzling aspect of the conservative attack on critical race theory is why it is happening now. Why in 2021 are states passing laws to inhibit and prevent free and open exploration of racism and slavery? All of a sudden in the last year conservatives and FOX got hot and bothered about it.

I think it is part of a national effort to control the narrative about our racial history. Since the George Floyd protests, conservatives are afraid and they want to reassert a sanitized version of history told from a white supremacist point of view. Fearing replacement by multi-racial democracy, they double down on voter suppression and 21st century Jim Crow.

Just as they did with the 1619 Project, conservatives needed to create a bogeyman and critical race theory serves that purpose.

A national opinion poll taken by Reuters/Ipsos found 57% of adults were unfamiliar with the term critical race theory. Many of those who claimed familiarity embraced misconceptions spread by conservative media outlets. It is a certainty that many who are using the term “critical race theory” have no clue what it is.

The campaign against critical race theory can only have a chilling effect on classroom speech. It will inhibit teachers and students who may wonder if their ideas have strayed over some Maginot line. It is highly likely many teachers will censor themselves to avoid being reported and getting into trouble.

The new laws limiting the teaching of critical race theory are almost certainly an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

In considering why critical race theory is now under attack, a historical parallel comes to mind. Nineteenth century white supremacists, who also wanted to control the historical narrative, castigated abolitionist educators in a fashion similar to modern-day conservatives opposing critical race theory.

Before the abolition of slavery, the story of nineteenth century American life was contested terrain. Slavers and abolitionists embodied opposites sides of the coin. One side saw a noble order sanctioned by god; the other side saw a monstrous and unacknowledged evil.

Slavery was not just a political and economic order – it had ideological underpinnings and justification. Much of the ideological battle around slavery has been forgotten.

The South lived in fear of slave rebellion and insurrection. The Haitian revolution especially stirred slave resistance. The southern states believed it was critical to prevent black men and women from becoming literate. Knowledge could encourage independence and free thought.

In the 1830’s, new laws prohibited slaves from learning to read and write. Black illiteracy was considered essential to the internal security of the slave South. All slave states except Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee passed laws against teaching slaves to read and write.

The historian Patrick Breen wrote, “Anti-literacy laws were written in response to the rise of abolitionism in the north”. Alabama passed a law in 1833 that read:

“..any person or persons who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write shall upon conviction thereof indictment be fined in a sum not less than two hundred and fifty dollars nor more than five hundred dollars.” (The fine would be equivalent to $7600 in today’s dollars)

Those slaves who learned reading and writing had to be extremely careful. Slaveowners were known to cut off thumbs or fingers for that offense.

The South was frightened by abolitionists like David Walker who distributed the Appeal, a pamphlet calling for uprisings to end slavery and by William Lloyd Garrison who published the Liberator, a newspaper committed to freedom for the enslaved. Garrison called for the immediate uncompensated abolition of slavery. Southerners greatly feared the possibility of an interracial abolitionist movement.

In 1835, the Anti-Slavery Society flooded the South with abolitionist literature through a postal campaign. The postal campaign provoked a very hostile response with a massive public burning of abolitionist literature in Charleston, South Carolina.

The story the South told was about the superiority of white Anglo-Saxon institutions. Slavery was touted as normal and natural. Black people were disparaged as irresponsible, child-like, incapable of self-control and ignorant. Black people were allegedly grateful and content with their position as slaves.

North Carolina passed laws aimed at suppressing slave rebellions by repressing the spread of abolitionist literature. An Act to Prevent the Circulation of Seditious Publications made it a felony to import and distribute “any written or printed pamphlet or paper…the evident tendency whereof would be to excite insurrections, conspiracy or resistance”.

In 1829, Georgia also passed a law which made circulating insurrectionary texts punishable by death.

While we have moved beyond opposing black literacy, the conservative response to critical race theory is very much like the opposition to abolitionism. Then it was fear of slave resistance, now it is fear of Black Lives Matter.

The abolitionists had circulated books and leaflets providing true accounts of life under slavery. Critical race theorists write books about systemic racism and how racism is deeply interwoven into housing, education, health care, policing and all walks of life. Invested in a whitewashed version of our past, conservatives have no time for any anti-racist narrative. They act like critical race theory is some kind of extremism which is exactly the way 19th century southerners saw abolitionism.

The common thread is a fear that abolitionism and critical race theory provoked and provoke unrest among the oppressed.That was and is a threat to white supremacy.

Although Black Lives Matter has been an overwhelmingly peaceful movement, conservatives have responded with anti-protest legislation. Back in their day, the slave states did similarly.

Just as happened almost 200 years ago, conservatives say anti-racists are motivated by hate. Slaveowners and white supremacists said the same about abolitionists and portrayed them as fanatics.

The mistake made is the idea that critical race theory has anything to do with hating white people. It does not. Critical race theory only tries to understand structures of racism and how they operate in society.

America still has a deep white supremacy problem. Consistent anti-racists can see that the fight today is a continuation of the same fight the abolitionists fought, just a different permutation.

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Down on earth, the ultra wealthy continue to tax evade – posted 7/22/2021

July 22, 2021 Leave a comment

There is deep cynicism about the ultra wealthy evading taxes. People expect it. Still, it was disconcerting to read ProPublica’s story about how the ultra wealthy are still gaming the system to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

I am reminded of an old quote from Eugene V. Debs:

“There is something wrong in this country; the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through.”

The whales, in earlier days known as robber barons, play by their own rules. ProPublica shows that many of our richest citizens have figured ways to pay no or minimal taxes. To name a few, Jeff Bezos paid no federal income taxes in 2007 and 2011; Elon Musk paid no taxes in 2018; and Carl Icahn paid no taxes in 2016 and 2017.

ProPublica obtained tax data on tax returns of thousands of the wealthiest Americans for over fifteen years. The pattern shows that the wealthiest pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the many millions their fortunes grew.

To the extent there is a debate over taxes it is mostly about incremental changes at the top of the tax rate. For individuals the debate is whether the high end rate should jump from 37% to 39.6%. For corporations, the rate may jump from 21% to 28%. The corporate rate was 35% before 2018.

While the income generated by these possible tax increases on the very wealthy would be much needed tax revenue, these discussions miss a bigger picture.

The IRS taxes income rather than assets like stock holdings or property. The value of stocks and property are not defined as taxable income until they are sold. As a result, much wealth escapes any IRS scrutiny. Determining the value of stocks and property would no doubt be extremely contentious but it is doable by some kind of fair and objective criteria.

The phenomena of extreme income inequality is a defining feature of our era. Over the last 16 months since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the combined wealth of 713 U.S. billionaires increased by $1.8 trillion, a gain of almost 60 percent. This increase happened at the same time the net worth of working Americans lagged.

The tax system in America is failing to come to grips with the reality of the economic inequality and the ways the ultra wealthy have maneuvered assets. Because wealth is accumulated outside the narrow realm of income, the IRS ignores it. It is like the IRS misses the boat because it is set up to address a time that no longer exists. It is not allowed to look in the right places.

ProPublica compared how much in taxes the 25 richest Americans paid between 2014-2018 compared to how much Forbes estimated their wealth grew in the same time period. The IRS records show the ultra wealthy paid only a tiny fraction of their wealth increase.

With their fleet of lawyers, the ultra wealthy have devised an array of techniques to get around the tax system. Minimizing salaries and income, holding onto stock in their companies, not paying dividends, deductions, wealth stored in off shore accounts and using loans are all legal ways the ultra wealthy have devised to minimize their tax burden.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse have demanded an investigation by the Senate Finance Committee into the ultra wealthy tax avoidance. In a letter to the Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, they write:

“…tax avoidance by the nation’s wealthiest individuals is profoundly unfair. It leaves the nation unable to pay for critical investments in infrastructure, education and health care. It favors investment income over wages, distorting our nation’s economy and adding to inequality. And it leaves low-income and middle class families paying an unfair tax burden.”

Warren and Whitehouse are also sponsoring an “ultra millionaire tax” to tax the wealthiest 100,000 households. The tax would include a 2% tax on households and trusts between $50 million and $1 billion. It would also feature an additional 1% annual surtax on the net worth of households and trusts over $1 billion.

A wealth tax at least considers a truer picture of the ultra wealthy and their schemes. It creates a mechanism for addressing wealth that has been stowed away in off-limits locations.

Since the ProPublica story broke, much media has focused on the fact that the unauthorized disclosure of confidential government information is illegal. ProPublica has not disclosed how it obtained the tax info. Republicans especially have expressed outrage about illegal violation of billionaires’ privacy. But Democrats barely had a better response. Neither party was outraged that billionaires have cheated the public by paying no or absurdly low taxes.

I am at a loss what harm occurs from the release of tax returns of the ultra wealthy. ProPublica noted that the Scandinavian countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland all regularly make public the tax returns of all citizens.

The IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig testified earlier this year that the government may be failing to collect more than $1 trillion of the taxes it is owed annually. The IRS has been starved of funding for years, crippling their ability to enforce tax law. Audits of the rich have plummeted. Poor people are now more likely to be audited than the ultra wealthy which is a travesty. The weakness of the IRS is not an accident – it has been de-clawed by the lobbyist tools of the super-rich.

When Jeff Bezos and other billionaires shoot themselves into space, maybe it is partly about obscuring the fact they do not pay fair taxes on the earth. For those old enough to remember, it is reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron singing “Whitey on the moon”.

Normalizing tax evasion by the ultra wealthy is pathological. Maybe we are worn down by outrage fatigue but it is only fundamental fairness that those who can afford to pay the most at least pay their fair share.

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How the COVID-19 pandemic became a public health failure – posted 7/10/2021

July 10, 2021 2 comments

When the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is ultimately written, it will be seen as a failure of public health. There is broad agreement among scientists that hundreds of thousands of Americans died unnecessarily. The Lancet estimated 40% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths were avoidable.

Explaining why the deaths did happen is a story that has been inadequately told. It goes far beyond inept and negligent leadership by the Trump Administration. The story is fundamentally about how Trump subordinated public health to his presidential campaign for re-election. Protecting the country from the virus was less important than winning re-election.

Optics meant everything to Trump and his administration’s response to COVID-19 was a model for what not to do in the face of a public health emergency. In their book Nightmare Scenario, Washington Post reporters Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta chronicle the Trump COVID-19 response through the last year of his administration.

Early on in January 2020, Trump minimized the virus and said “we have it totally under control”. Abutaleb and Paletta say Trump thought he could will the virus away:

“The key to willing it away was to ensure that his public remarks conveyed no concern, no apprehension. His life, in public and private, was built on a stack of fakes and lies, an amoral brazenness that gave him a decided advantage over his adversaries…He would use the same tactic on this virus, this microbe, this tiny thing no one could see.”

Trump refused to believe the virus would come to America. For months, he repeatedly said the virus was just going to magically disappear.

When it did not disappear, he focused on creating the impression that virus numbers were minimal. Abutaleb and Paletta say Trump saw the U.S. case count like a golf score he wanted to keep low. He did not want infected passengers on the cruise ship Diamond Princess to disembark in America because it would double his COVID-19 numbers.

Trump actually suggested sending the ill passengers, most of whom were elderly, to Guantanamo Bay. His aides killed the idea because they realized sending elderly sick people to Gitmo was a birdbrain idea.

Trump saw the virus as a messaging problem and he wanted to control the message. In the early months of 2020 the message was: this is going away. He blamed testing for making him look bad. From his perspective, the more testing, the more cases would show up. He told Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “Testing is killing me.” He wanted to slow testing down.

There is no question though that Trump privately knew COVID-19 was deadly. He told Bob Woodward:

“This is deadly stuff. You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”

That, however, was never the public message. He always played the virus down. Trump’s re-election strategy was to keep people working and shopping no matter how many died. He remained afraid of the stock market crashing and a poor economy costing him re-election. In March 2020 he tweeted that we could not let the cure be worse than the problem. This became the mantra for Republicans and right wing media.

Things went especially haywire when Trump started touting miracle cures like hydoxychloroquine, bleach and shooting powerful lights into the body. Selling quack cures like some elixir degraded his station and made him look like a snake oil salesman. He became too easy fodder for late night comedians.

No president was ever more anti-science than Donald Trump. When public health officials like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx tried to inject reality, Trump accused them of negativity. He had contempt for his own COVID-19 Taskforce calling it “that fucking council that Mike (Pence) has”. Trump was fed up with doctors who would not tell him what he wanted to hear. He could never embrace the importance of masks and social distancing.

In the second half of 2020, Trump gave up on any pretense of fighting the virus. Trusting his gut instincts, Trump backbenched Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx in favor of Dr. Scott Atlas, a telegenic figure who appeared on FOX, who promoted discredited theories of herd immunity. Doctors in the infectious disease community were horrified. Trump returned to rallies with tightly packed crowds of people who were largely maskless.

Abutaleb and Paletta say that when Trump came down with COVID-19 he was far more sick than was ever reported to the public. His fever spiked and his blood oxygen fell below 94 percent, once dipping into the 80’s. His doctors worried he would die. Because of his access to experimental medications others could not get, he recovered but he appeared to learn nothing from the experience.

Beating the virus, he doubled down and played macho man. His message was that people should not be afraid of the virus and they should live normal lives.In effect, they should ignore the virus.

Trump’s post-illness performance, when he removed his mask after walking up the White House stairs reflected his anti-science attitude. He hated masks as a sign of weakness and he asked aides who wore masks in his presence to take them off. Appearances were always more important than science to Trump.

As the pandemic evolved, Trump was oblivious to the massive pain, hardship and suffering. He remained unable to show empathy or compassion to COVID-19 victims or their families.

In October 2020, a Trump Administration official said: “What happens when you mix politics and public health? You get politics.” Winning was everything to Trump but his incompetent handling of the pandemic was probably the biggest single reason he lost re-election.

Instead of leading a coordinated federal effort, Trump took no responsibility and downshifted blame to the states. Initially he and Jared Kushner wanted to blame blue state governors but the spike of infections in red and swing states nixed that.

Trump believed the COVID vaccine could save his electoral prospects and he was obsessed with getting the vaccine out before the November election. When that did not happen, he did not step up to counter vaccine hesitancy. You would have thought he would have championed the vaccine and then taken credit. Instead he did nothing to counter the anti-vaxxers which is tragic because COVID deaths are now almost entirely coming from red states with higher unvaccinated populations.

In a little known moment, Trump and the former First Lady got vaccinated in the White House back in January 2021. He did very little to encourage people to get vaccinated and it could have made a difference. More recently, he has railed against school age children getting the COVID-19 vaccine saying falsely that they are not affected by coronavirus.

I am not expecting any accountability for the Trump Administration’s epic failure. There is no law against doing nothing while hundreds of thousands die.Hopefully though, when the next pandemic hits, we will have learned something from this debacle.

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QAnon and blood libel accusations – posted 7/4/2021

July 4, 2021 1 comment

I pretend to no special expertise about the cult conspiracy theory QAnon. I tried to watch the HBO special about it and I could not get through it. I have marveled at the number of followers swept up by the cult.

The Public Religion Research Institute did a new national survey that found 15% of Americans buying into QAnon. The survey found white evangelicals and Hispanic Protestants were the most susceptible to the QAnon theory. The survey found a strong correlation between consuming right wing media sources and accepting QAnon conspiracy theory.

QAnon’s prominence in Trumpworld is undeniable. Looking at the New York Times video about January 6, QAnon supporters figured prominently. Many carried signs and wore clothing emblazoned with references to Q. Names come to mind like Jacob Chansley(the QAnon shaman), Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert: all have some connection to the Q universe.

Two QAnon supporters died on January 6 at the Capitol. In the melee, Rosanne Boyland, a Georgia woman, died from accidental acute amphetamine intoxication. It had earlier been reported she was trampled by the crowd. Ashli Babbitt, a California woman, was shot and killed by a U.S. Capitol police officer.

Why so many would join QAnon remains a mystery. A friend recently told me that Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro and Tom Hanks were all pedophiles who drink the blood of children. He said it with absolute certainty and he referred me to youtube videos for confirmation. He said that Trump is fighting against a global network of Hollywood celebrities and deep staters populating the federal government.

QAnon rests on the theory that Trump is fighting a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex-trafficking operation. QAnon supporters believe there is a storm coming that will sweep away elites in power and will restore rightful leaders. They also think American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country.

It should go without saying that the idea there is a conspiracy of blood-drinking pedophiles out there utterly defies any notion of credibility. Meryl Streep, a blood-drinking pedophile? Please. You have to ask: how can people believe it and where do such whacked-out, far-fetched ideas come from?

History provides an answer. QAnon is not the first to assert there is a cabal of blood drinkers. Over the last 1,000 years, it is a frequently recurring trope. It has been deployed by Christians against Jews, by Christians against witches, and by Catholics against heretics. Talia Lavin has written:

”…it is a malleable set of accusations that posit that a social out-group is engaged in perverse, ritualistic behaviors that target innocents – and that the out-group and all its enablers must be crushed.”

Most commonly, the accusation of ritual murder took the form of a blood libel against the Jews. The blood libel accusation was that Jews stole the blood of Christian children. The accusation was often made around Passover as Jews were supposed to require Christian blood to make matzo.

In his book, The Accusation, Edward Berenson described some other forms of the blood libel:

“Jews supposedly cleansed themselves of sin by bathing in Christian blood, used it for their weekly Sabbath ceremonies and considered it a cure for various diseases and disabilities, including impotence.”

The blood libel has been anything but harmless. During the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jews in Europe were accused of ritual murder every few years and thousands of Jews were tortured and murdered.

In the late nineteenth century, rhetorical violence against Jews became extreme. In Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Russia, newspapers spread anti-semitic lies that ritual murder of Christian children played an essential role in the Jewish religion. The myth was that Jews were murdering Christian children pursuant to Talmudic law. Allegedly, Jews needed the blood of young Christians to mix with Passover wine as ingredients for matzo.

Pogroms against Jewish communities spread through Russia, Austria-Hungary, and eastern Germany. Anti-semites looted Jewish shops and taverns, ransacked Jewish homes and acted out violently, battering and killing Jews.

QAnon connected up with and follows in this tradition of junk thought. While the QAnon movement is diverse and evolving, you do not see any denunciations of anti-semitism or white supremacy coming out of that movement. Since Twitter banned QAnon after the Capitol attack, one Q influencer named GhostEzra has emerged on Telegram spewing anti-semitic memes.

From my exposure, I would say that Q people see themselves as soldiers fighting a good fight pursuing a quest to punish bad guys. The problem is the underlying irrationality of the QAnon movement. It does not appear to matter how implausible their belief system is. Nor does it matter if there is evidence in support of the theory. This is a movement absolutely contrary to evidence-based science.

QAnon, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, gun confiscation paranoids and believers in Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen election have all junked rationality. They all inhabit an anti-intellectual universe where subjective belief is all that matters. Nutty opinions are the norm and clear thinking is a casualty.

On July 3 at a campaign stop in Florida, Trump himself provided a good explanation for how he gets his followers (including QAnon believers) to believe nonsense. He said:

“There’s a word: disinformation. If you say it enough and keep saying it – just keep saying it – and they’ll start to believe you.”

This is no different than what Joseph Goebbels used to say: ”Make the lie big, keep it simple, keep saying it and eventually they will believe it.”

It is hard to know where the QAnon movement is headed or how it will survive predictions that never happen and turn out to be false. QAnon has made inroads into New Age spirituality groups. Some wellness and yoga adherents have embraced QAnon’s conspiratorial world view.

QAnon has shredded families who have to cope in the wake of a family member’s indoctrination. It can be extremely painful as non-believers can be seen as an enemy.

The cult expert Steven Hassan believes QAnon is structured like a psychological warfare operation that is akin to brainwashing and sophisticated manipulation. He stresses that it is average people who are involved who started out seeking information and answers during an uncertain time. The pandemic and its social isolation created more favorable conditions for the growth of QAnon.

Hopefully, QAnon will crash and burn. As an inheritor of the blood libel theory, its danger must not be underestimated.

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