The Nation: July 29 – August 5, 2019 Issue

AI’s Persona Problem, by Patricia J. Williams: I don’t usually talk much about the front third of The Nation, as most of the stuff they talk about is more recent event stuff that has gone stale by the time I make my way into the stack. Or, more likely, it’s that I’m already sick of the subject by the time I get to it. This one fits well with the technological issues that I’ve been discussing, and is in line with the Team Human themes that I’ve been interested in lately.

Williams talks about the death of privacy, but gets into the ‘code switching’ that people adopt on different areas of the internet. Lord knows I’m guilty of that here. The persona problem that she’s referring to is that that of an individual’s right to self-invention, and the inability of computers to sense the complexity of people’s emotions, or as Rushkoff puts it, the fidelity of human interaction. It’s a short piece, and one that I’d like to see Williams delve deeper into in the future.

The Trump Court, by Elie Mystal: Here is the most terrifying thing about Trump: that besides all of his incompetencies, his madness, and the sheer absurdity, he has been extraordinarily effective at transforming the Federal courts for likely several generations. Mystal is rightly indignant at Democrats for failing to make the Courts more of a campaign issue, and presents a very strong article showing us just how far the Right has succeeded, and what the stakes are for the near future.

Democrats did not make the Supreme Court enough of an issue during the 2016 election, and as a result we now have Justice Kavanaugh. But beyond the relatively high profile of the Supremes, it’s the lower courts that we should really be paying attention to, as the Circuit Courts are the final arbiter of most cases. Mystal picks 7 of the worst ultraconservatives that Trump — or rather the Heritage Foundation — has placed on the courts, and looks at their records on civil rights, gun regulations, immigrants, torture, health care, campaign finance, and so forth.

Mystal is right, Democratics have failed spectacularly when it comes to informing the public about the stakes on this, and we’ll likely be living with the results for generations to come, assuming we can get Trump out of office before the takeover is complete.

Bernie’s Challenge to American Exceptionalism, by Greg Grandin: There is an ongoing theme among the left, a theory about Bernie Sanders, that his brand of democratic socialism is unique, or rather makes Sanders unique among the other contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Ergo, since the other contenders are therefore equivalent, they will ultimately be ineffective at dealing with the problems of capitalism and the issues that gave us Trump.

Grandin make a strong case here that Sander’s platform “is the only thing that can break up the ideological cohesion of the modern right”. He does that by taking us on a historical tour of the war between social rights and individual rights that has been ongoing in America. He writes:

“Individual or political rights are aimed at restraining government power. They presume that virtue is rooted in the individual and that the public good, or general welfare, of a society stems from allowing individuals to pursue their interestsโ€”to possess, to assemble, to believe, to speak, and so onโ€”to the greatest degree possible. A legitimate state is a state that restrains itself, that limits its role to protecting the realm in which individuals pursue their rights. Economic or social rights presume that in a complex, industrial society, with its imbalances of power and often extreme concentrations of wealth, the state has a much more active role to play in nurturing virtue through the redistribution of wealth in the form of education, health, child care, pensions, housing, and other common needs.”

Grandin is the author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, which was in Dissent’s Summer 2019 issue. He teaches history at Yale and sits on the editorial board of The Nation as well. I’m starting to find him a very important voice to help understand contemporary America through the lens of history — which is the point of knowing history, of course.

If he is correct that Sander’s is uniquely leading a charge against the individual rights exclusivism that underpins the conservative right, then all progressives and liberals should study that focus and apply it. No matter what ultimately happens with Sander’s presidential campaign. And that’s been my take away from Sander’s 2016 and 2020 runs, that no matter what happens, there are lessons to be gained from it, movements to be built, and people to empower. And I think that has always been Sanders’s goal. Even from those first losses for governor of Vermont, he was showing the way.

The Right Side, by James Oakes: Review of Armies of Deliverance, by Elizabeth R. Varon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone discount the basic premise of an author while effectively building a new thesis on top of the same work. Oakes does this with Varon’s premise that the Civil War was won as various factions, including “enslaved blacks, nonslaveholding Southerners, Northern Democrats and antislavery Republicans, came together to defeat this slaveholder’s rebellion.” To him, this interpretation is incorrect. The battle was not about slavery per se, but against slaveholders, making the Civil War a class conflict.

Oakes is not critical of Varon’s book, in fact his review practically gushes with praise. He considers this and her other volume on Civil War history to be very important chronicles of primary-source materials. Oakes, who is the author of this own volume on the Civil War, makes a compelling case for a reinterpretation of the binding principle of the Union forces against the Slave Power of the Confederacy, one which may be helpful in bringing class struggle to the forefront of modern American consciousness.

The Nation Magazine: July 15/22

Reclaiming Stonewall, guest editor: Patrick McCarthy: This issue commemorates the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. I hate to use the word riot in the context of this event, a more appropriate term would be confrontation. Fed up with being targeted for by police for being, Stonewall marked a turning point in the LGBTQ community, one that would see a revolutionary change in status through the AIDS crisis and marriage equality. This special section of the magazine features short contributions by a number of LGBTQ activists, organizers and authors.

Warren Rising, by Joan Walsh: Continuing their coverage of the 2020 Democratic nominee hopefuls, The Nation turns their attention to Elizabeth Warren. Along with Bernie Sanders, Warren is one of the front-runners among the more radical and progressive factions on the left, and this gushing portrait of her is indicative of that. Joan Walsh follows Warren as she stumps through Iowa, covering her speech and reaction from the electorate while providing more of Warren’s background and some direct reporting.

I cant tell if this report is a glowing portrait of Warren because of her front-runner status in the primary, or if it’s because she’s the real deal. I’ve got great respect for Warren, and would welcome her as the nominee, but I would still prefer Sanders’s class-antagonism over Warren’s “I’m a capitalist” reformism. Still, there’s the issue of electability, and given Warren’s ability to bounce back from Trump’s attacks, and the Democratic establishment’s fear/hate of Sanders, I do hope that either one of them is able to beat out Biden for the nomination.

Resisting Trump’s Cruelty, by Sasha Abramsky: If there’s anything that seems to drive my outrage fatigue more than anything, it’s the Trump administrations’s wanton cruelty against immigrants. As I’m quick to remind, “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” of Trump’s policies, following a predictable proto-fascist campaign to stir up racial resentment and white nationalism. This article points out the rays of sunshine in the fight against this dehumanization of South American refugees, those risking jailtime to make border crossings through the desert less deadly, and the churches and community organizations that are stepping up to sponsor, clothe and shelter those waiting on their asylum hearings.

Inherently Unequal, by David Cole: Review of Separate, by Steve Luxenberg. This history of the Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court case which enshrined separate but equal in the United States until it was over turned 58 years later, is interesting for a variety of reasons. The litigants in the case knew that it was deemed to fail, and it was even opposed by Frederick Douglass and other civil rights supporters. Without a mass movement on their side, they knew that the nation, still reeling from the Civil War, was not ready. What surprised me also was that the case was brought by the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, as well as the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which did so because of the expense of operating separate cars. While the justification of the Court’s majority decision that segregation was “in the nature of things” is not surprising, it is that the sole dissenter in the 7-1 decision was the Court’s only southerner, Justice John Marshall Harlan. Harlan, who was raised in a slave-owning family and was a long-time opponent of civil rights legislation and supporter of states-rights, was nonetheless a supporter of the 13th and 14th amendments.

The Nation Magazine: July 1/8 2019

Killer Kitch, by James McAuley: I’ll admit I didn’t read all of this issue’s cover story on Renaud Camus. I’m not familiar with his work, but after a couple of pages about this man I had read enough. I guess I’ve heard enough about le grand replacement, and given that I had been reading this around the second anniversary of Unite The Right’s Charlottesville rally, I don’t think I really wanted to read more about it.

The Florida GOP’s Assault on Democracy, by Sasha Abramsky: This seems par the course these days: citizens overwhelmingly approve ballot measure that will increase voting power by demographics likely to favor Democratic party candidates; Republican legislators move the goalposts and otherwise try to undermine the voice of the people in order to preserve their power. In this case it was a measure to reinstate voting rights for persons convicted of a felony after they had served their time. We’ve seen a similar response play out here in Virginia after gubernatorial executive orders granting blanket restorations to tens of thousands of citizens. The Virginia GOP about had the vapors.

The situation is a bit more dire for Republicans in Florida, given the state’s role in the 2000 presidential race. According to Abramsky, about 1.4 million people were expected to be reinstated by Florida’s Amendment 4, but state Republicans have managed to lower that number to around 800,000 changing the criteria and qualifications that individuals have to have to fall under the rule. And since it seems to be par the course for these reviews, here’s the obligatory Last Week Tonight segment that covered the absolute shitshow that was Florida disenfranchisement before the 2018 vote.

The Statue Aimed at Julian Assange, by Miriam Schnier: Now I could normally give a rat’s ass about Assange. I dislike him for a variety of reasons, but as I’ve said here before, how we treat the worst of us reflects on us. And the real importance about this article is because of the information it gives about the 1917 Espionage Act. And this is really where my subscription to The Nation really pays for itself. The magazine has been around long enough that it was there a hundred years ago, when noted the passage of the act with the headline “Civil Liberty Dead”.

“Based on language in the act that criminalized efforts to obstruct military recruitment, the government rounded up thousands of anti-war protesters, union activists, and political radicals, many of whom were held without trial in hastily organized internment camps.

Miriam Schneir

Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, and anarchist activist Emma Goldman were both imprisoned under the Act, and Daniel Ellsburg likely would have been convicted for his release of the Pentagon Papers of not for the incompetence of Nixon’s ‘plumbers’. Both Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner have been charged under the Act.

While I’ll not defend Ethel and Julius Rosenburg’s spying for the Soviet Union, Schnier notes “the government has been able to use it to restrict freedom of speech; imprison anti-war activists, socialists, anarchists, communists, and ideological whistle-blowers; and help to destroy numerous progressive organizations and publications.”

Lost Bearings, by David A. Bell: Review of A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik. Ah, liberalism. A word that has been demonized both by the right and the left. I’ve given much thought to its meaning, mostly in relation to the term progressive. My theory is that the two differ mainly on economic issues. Over the years, there’s been so much demonization of ‘liberal’ by right wing media like Limbaugh and Fox News, that actual liberals have fled from it, preferring the term ‘progressive’ when describing themselves. As far as social issues like race and LGBT equality goes, there isn’t much air between the two sides, and liberal politicians have been using the term to signal to the Democratic base that they are on board with these issues.

But my qualm with these politicians is that they share none of the economic values that are inherent in progressivism: welfare, economic equality, regulation, and progressive taxation. Virginia’s current Governor, Ralph Northam, is probably the most egregious example that I can think of, who was running around the state during his 2017 campaign, calling himself a progressive while simultaneously taking tens of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies.

I’ve long referenced the three party system in explaining these differences during my political activities. The ability of the neoliberal corporate wing of the Democratic party to play lip service to the progressive wing of the party continues to sicken me. Unfortunately, so long as the party of Trump continues to be dumpster fire, moderate, right leaning citizens who would normally vote social and fiscal conservative, will migrate to these moderate Democrats. Given the current demographics of the electorate, and the paltry participation by more progressive-leaning Millennials, I can see no solution to this problem until the current generation of boomers ages out of the population.

The Nation Magazine: June 14/24, 2019

Gag Order by Aviva Stahl: The cover story of this issue is about the force-feeding of hunger striking prisoners in America’s ‘most secretive prisons.’ One of the things we must remember in a free society is the way in which we treat our worst, most despicable criminals reflects on us. The men profiled in this story are convicted terrorists, some of whom were responsible for the 1990 World Trade Center bombings. These men have been locked away in high-security prisons, isolated from others for long stretches of time under special administrative measures, or SAMs. These SAMs mean that they’re limited who they can meet with, letters to family may take six months to be reviewed and delivered, and they’re confined to the cell for 23 hours a day.

The justification for these SAMs are not disclosed to the prisoners, or their lawyers, and there is no appeals process for getting them reviewed. For these reasons many of the men under these restrictions go on hunger strikes. And many of them have been subjected to forced feedings, some as many as 200 times. And the details of these tube feedings sound abusive, if not borderline torture.

Unfortunately for these men, their plight is hidden from sight. Access to them is severely restricted, and many of these stories can only be told because the men in question have been released to lower security facilities. The author notes that when the world became aware of similar abuses taking place at Guantanamo Bay, the public outrage eventually led to reforms. Not so with these men, but perhaps this feature will change that. I remain skeptical, that given all of the issues with criminal justice going on in America at this time that we will see much happen with this under the current administration. It remains to be seen whether there recourse in the courts of justice, as I do not see the court of public opinion swaying on this one any time soon.

Renters Revolt by Jimmy Tobias: As we mentioned in yesterday’s review of the Home Improvement issue of Jacobin, housing justice has been growing in importance on the Left recently, and this report details progress in organizing renters. The author list three reasons that rent has become unaffordable for so many in America: lack of wage growth; demand for rental housing following the 2008 crash, which has led to a 50-year low in home ownership; and a Wall Street buying spree which has focused on buying apartment complexes and mobile home parks from family-owned business. From there, a number of tactics are deployed, either to force renters out so that new tenants can be brought in under a higher rent, or in the case of mobile homes, which are anything but, the tenants must either abandon their property or pay the higher rent. This latter situation was detailed by Last Week Tonight:

As was detailed in the Jacobin issue, New York City remains the focus of renter organizing efforts. As New Yorks rent-controlled housing stock dwindles, the upward rent pressure increases. But the rest of New York State appears to be without these rent protections at all, and thankfully there are signs that newly elected state legislators are taking a pro-renter position in order to correct these ills. Similar progress seems to be taking place in California and in the Pacific Northwest.

Efforts to organize renters, and their willingness to fight back against slumlords and exploitative landlords should be applauded, and we look forward to seeing more of how these efforts progress.

Manifest Destinies, by Rashid Khalidi: Review of Our American Israel by Amy Kaplan. Given all of the media time that US/Israeli relations have been getting lately, it seems appropriate that one examines the history of those relations. How did the Israel and Palestinian conflict, and criticism of the Israeli state, become such a hotbed issue in American politics. When I brought the issue up with my father, a red-blooded, gun-owning (former) Trump voter, his response was wrapped in acknowledgement of the Holocaust. Like the Germans, it’s seemingly argued, the Palestinians pose an existential threat to the Jewish people. Hostilities against them are therefore justified. Similarly, so was the 1982 war with Lebanon, which was before my adulthood, and likewise seems to be either forgotten or forgiven by most of the American public.

The Zionist evangelical movement in the United States gets mentioned as well. [I know we are playing with some dangerous terms here, boys and girls, but nothing we’ve written here should be taken in any way to be anti-Semitic.] I’ve always understood it from the aspect that the state of Israel is some sort of prerequisite for the return of Jesus and the Rapture. Still, the willingness of the religious right to put up with so much horror to fuel this dream still boggles the mind. I should not be shocked, I suppose.

This past week we’ve seen Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar barred from entering Israel on a recent trip, as President Trump continues to his mission from God to protect the state of Israel. Need we remind the reader that during Obama’s last term, Bibi Netanyahu was invited to address a joint session of Congress. As support builds on the Left for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and as the centrists, liberals and the right backlash against these efforts, it’s important for people to realize how we got here.

Whether the presentation of Israel as the America of the Middle East is accurate, knowing how this relationship has been managed over the the past eighty years will help us deal with the issues in the Middle East. Not just with regard to the West Bank, but with Iran as well.

The Nation Magazine – Spring Books 2019

I’ve had a subscription to The Nation for just over a year now. Tom Nichol’s book with Robert McChesney, People Get Ready, was my gateway drug. I was a bit underprepared for the sheer amount of material that they publish, since the articles and reviews are rather lengthy. They have a really weird publishing schedule as well. The schedule is irregularly regular, certain months are four, three, or two issues. I’m sure there’s an story as to why it’s like that, but it’s just strange.

And don’t get me started on the crossword puzzles. Just reading the notes makes me anxious. I’m sure I’ll never…

Each issue has at least two hours of content if one reads cover-to-cover. Obviously, keeping up with the publishing schedule, and my other subscriptions, causes me to get pretty backlogged, and I usually have four or five issues in my to-read stack. I just finished the June 3rd issue, so that’s probably closer to seven. I’ve started to skip through most of the beginning features, the opinion and more recent event stuff, since by the time I get to the issue it’s already several cycles behind. I do read the features, and probably enjoy the book and media reviews in the back the most, since they’re usually more outside of the pressing issues and offer more of a historical context to things and people that I’ve never heard of before.

In spring and fall they put out their bi-annual books issues, which forgo the features in favor of more reviews. This is where I’ve just finished. I find that these reviews, both in these books issues and the regular editions, offer me a pretty thorough synopsis of not only a book or three about a subject or by the same author, but also about the history or background of the subject. I enjoy the exposure.

Everything to Lose: review of David Wallace-Wells The Uninhabitable Earth and Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth. Wells was recently on the Team Human podcast, which is also worth checking out. Since we now live in an age where climate disaster is all but certain, the question becomes what do we do now with our daily lives to adjust to it. I for one, after trying to work within the political process and Democratic party for the past 4 years, have become skeptical that our existing political system can dig us out of this mess. More radical measures will be needed, but we’re not likely to have the organizing power to affect this change until more of the effects are being felt, and more of the old guard has passed on to make way for younger generations. By that time, the amount of climate change that has been baked into the system in addition to what we’re already facing may be more than we can deal with. We’ll see what the next decade holds.

Box of Wonders: review of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. Ever since I deleted Facebook off of my iPhone months ago I’ve become to realize how toxic much of the online lifestyle has become to the human spirit. I’ve managed to stay away from it completely for some time now — don’t touch my Twitter, though! — and it’s been apparent how addictive these social media platforms are, and the damaging influence they have on society. My meditation practice is a way to cope with this, and in response I make it a priority to be present around my children whenever possible, or when I’m out with others. One thing I’ve rediscovered during this practice is the joy of doing nothing, and the tendency for the human mind to find something to focus attention on, whether it’s discomfort of the body in the present, regrets of the past, or anxieties about the future. Just being content in the moment is a really important skill and one that I am trying to teach to my kids. It’s also helping me break that habit of reaching for my phone during every period of waiting or those transition moments between activities during the day. The algorithms haven’t won yet.

The Language of the Unheard: review of Sylvie Laurent’s King and the Other America. As someone who has been very interested in the work that Rev. D. William Barber II has been doing with the revived Poor People’s Campaign, histories of Martin Luther King’s original Poor People’s Campaign always gets my attention. I’ve written about King’s radicalism elsewhere, and how he’s been sanitized and co-opted by everything from corporations to the conservative right. His tendencies toward social-democratic politics are well documented. Some might even say he held socialist views toward the end of his life. Who knows where we might be today had he and Robert Kennedy been able to keep this movement from failing?