Hurricane Maria update, 9/30

A friend writes . . .     

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen provecho” to strangers. Of living, in many cases, a tough life, as a result of the crisis, but living!

I would continue to return here for work, sadness filling my heart each time I presented a boarding pass at SJU, headed back home. Two years later, the “one day” that I had said I would move to Puerto Rico came, and again I arrived, with two suitcases, and no return ticket, as this was finally my home.

Since then, I have spent the last two years getting to know my new home. From Cabo Rojo to Fajardo, from Aguadilla to Yabucoa. I lived in Gurabo. I lived in Puerta de Tierra, and now, Miramar. I went to Guavate for lechon. And found frituras, and mangos and the best piñas un the world on the side of roads. I went to the placita, and decided that I desperately needed some salsa lessons.

And then, I watched Maria beat up my beautiful island, and tear down its trees, and destroy the electrical grid. But that hijo de p*** madre Hurricane, will not break us. Look at the picture. The building fell, but the streamers are still there. She made life hard, but she didn’t take down our spirit.

Most of our lives these days are spent waiting in lines for basic necessities. Most of us have finally heard from loved ones throughout the island, but some still wait, and worry. We pray for their families safety. And most of us are not doing anything illegal. We’re not hurting our neighbors for a bit of gasoline. We’re not freaking out.

Maybe it’s because Puerto Ricans have always known the secret to life.
That it could be hard, but it is meant to be enjoyed. To be shared. To be celebrated. That it’s not what you have in your life, but who you have in your life.

That’s what I learned from my upbringing in Greece. And maybe that’s why, from the first time I came here, after more than thirty years up north, Puerto Ricans felt like family. That if you have a little, you share. That everyone around us is our brother and sister. Nuestros padres, y nuestros hijos.

And if you don’t believe me that Puerto Ricans know how to celebrate even a difficult life, you had nothing more to do than to be anywhere that sold cold beer yesterday, when Ley Seca was lifted. The electricity will return. New leaves and new trees will grow. And this Isla del Encanto will continue to be one of the most special places on this planet. Because of its people.

Wepaaaa, mi gente. Let’s show the world how we do it here in Puerto Rico!

Maria update, Friday 9/29

A friend writes . . .

Well, once again, the pump for the water is not working properly, which means that even the few hours of water we had are gone. After an uplifting day yesterday, where xxxxx got some hopeful news about his flight today, and I got to see yyyyy and the kids, the reality is again seeping in.

I know I am a peevish prick, but when I see one of the calmest people I have ever met display signs of angst and aggravation, I know it’s not just me who is bothered by the situation.

The shelves in the supermarkets near me are starting to look bleak. Nothing fresh. The convenience store near me is getting some things, most importantly BEER! Alcohol sales have resumed. So once xxxxx found out that his flight was cancelled, 😩😩😩, we went to the store to get cold beer 🍻.

Now, in the second hour of our gas line, we are passing the time as best as we can. My best hope estimate for electricity, given how central my location in San Juan is, is at least another month…

I have no idea how long before this becomes a chore. I don’t own a car, so the rental is a luxury. It has allowed us to explore the damage, to check in on loved ones (Not my BFF), buy food, and try to get information about xxxx’s flight.

Returning to my pedestrian/cycling life means one less line, but also will create some limitations. Still, I really hope that soon, things start getting better. In the meantime…

Maria Update 9/26

It was the heat that woke me up. As I expect it will be the heat that keeps me awake until the power returns. Exhaustion, a good meal, a bit of wine and a shower right before bed at least allowed me a solid four hours last night. Coffee on the camping stove, a cigarette by the window, a charged phone to occupy my time. It should have been a good morning.

And then it wasn’t. Checking the information on some Facebook sites on what is open, banks, ice plants, gas stations, Supermarkets, I came across several articles and personal posts talking about, and sharing pictures of, the destruction in Puerto Rico. The pictures of the broken homes, didn’t do it, as luckily they are fewer than we first feared. The pictures of lines for everything didn’t do it.

No, it was a post from a man, living in states, thanking us on the site for the support he received after posting earlier that his father had passed, and how he could not get to Puerto Rico to see him before he died, or to bury him now that he had.

And then the pictures of leafless, broken trees revealing behind them buildings, or even entire communities previously shielded from view by a curtain of green, so beautiful and verdant that for me, the beach loving city boy, was the definitive trait of this beautiful speck of land in the middle of the ocean that became my home from the moment I set foot on it four years ago.

This morning, while enjoying the quiet before the lifting of the curfew, was the first time I actually cried. I came close once before. “Puerto Rico is no longer green,” is how I said it to a neighbor waiting in line with me at the supermarket the other day. And watching his eyes water almost did it, but a hand on the shoulder, and a bad joke about trimming bushes, spared both of us.

Today, I hope to go help a friend clean out their home, deluged not by the storm, but by a release of water from a dam that caused flooding in places spared by the hurricane. I need the distraction, and to see him and his family in person. To do something that feels like it helps the process of rebuilding, of healing.

Many of you have asked how you can help. Put pressure on the powers that be to act and to act quickly. While it lost its green heart, Puerto Rico has not lost its soul. People still smile, and share, and end every recounting of their personal losses with Gracias a Dios (thank God) in realization of the value of what they didn’t lose, of how much worse it could have been.

But, the lines, the deprivation of things we all normally take for granted like running water, or the ability to talk to loved ones, to get in the car and check on your elderly parents, or being able to just walk into a supermarket without having to wait, will take their toll.

We still share, but how long before we have to stop helping those without cash get something to eat, because our own supplies are running low? How long before the lines become unruly? We, and those in surrounding islands devastated by Irma or Maria, need help.

While nature dealt us a severe blow to our island, our society, our spirit, remains wonderful, life loving, warm. I hope that the actions, or inactions, of men don’t damage that. Because the trees will grow back.

Maria update. Wednesday 9/27

A friend from PR writes . . .

I have a favor to ask. Please don’t ask me to confirm or comment on news about Puerto Rico these days. Especially from the people at Univision.

We all know that news focuses on the sensational, but the descriptions of Destruction and violence, while accurate for their specific instances, should not be taken as an indication of what’s happening widely.

There have been robberies. There have been people who died. There have been homes that were actually destroyed. But this is not what has happened to all of us.

We’re not, yet, murdering each other for a loaf of bread or tank of gas. There’s still a lot of laughter in lines, and there are still people helping each other left and right, from family, to neighbors, and even strangers.

The guy offering to let xxx and I use the shower when we didn’t have water. The people buying two dozen eggs and giving one to their neighbor, who wanted three for her family. The people walking through the lines giving everyone updates on when the gas might start flowing. The civilians directing traffic in the first couple of days after the storm. The people who post pictures and names of strangers on Facebook so that those people’s families can know that their loved ones are well.

And the laughter. It continues to echo throughout our endless lines. With people running out of cash, there are now huge lines at the few banks that are open to get money. You then take that money and go wait in line for gas, or food, or , God help you, if you need to buy ice or water.

As we were sitting downstairs last night, sharing stories and food with a young couple from my building, who had been heating food by candlelight-and yes I did mean heating not eating, the woman described this as an exercise in patience.

Moving here helped me find that patient, calm kid I once was again. But I’m really starting to lose my patience with sensationalist stories that put this, my adopted homeland, in a negative light.

The situation is bad. Our electrical infrastructure is destroyed. It will take a lot of time, money, and help, for Puerto Rico to return to what it was a week ago. Getting basic necessities takes effort these days.

Our sense of community continues to be strong. And I have to tell you, no other place I’ve ever been defines community as an entire country as much as Puerto Rico does.

There is a pride in being Puerto Rican, that you hear in half of the songs, in conversations all of the time, that you see everywhere you go.

So, while life here is anything but a party these days, please do not let the news tell you that our society has disintegrated in the chaos.
If anything, most of us are behaving as our better angels.

Puerto Rico, USA (2)

A friend on the island writes . . .

Maria update whatever, Monday 9/25

So what is life like?

We spend hours hanging out with neighbors that we would otherwise just say hello to on the elevator.

We start conversations with strangers everywhere we go. Unfortunately, most of these meetings occur while waiting in line.

Some wait in line for the few functioning ATMs to get cash because none of the card machines are working. You then take that cash, go wait in line at the supermarket so you can buy whatever food remains on the shelves. Which for the time being is still okay. We wait in line for $10 worth of gasoline.

There is traffic, although given that traffic lights are out, I am surprised it’s not worse.

We wait in line in the hopes of catching a flight, for some of us back home, for others like [xxxx], to school, and for me, to a wedding twenty years in the making that I missed, and a trip to Greece that is delayed until?

And after days of using precious gasoline to go to the airport, you finally get told that it will be days before there is even a chance of flying out. So, you let go, after also checking other airports and even the boat marina, and go to the beach, to cool off, and hug the shade of the few remaining trees there.

And by 7 pm, the curfew kicks in, and we are expected to remain in our darkened residences, sober, because of a temporary ban on sales of alcoholic beverages.

Luckily, we have a very healthy relationship with rules here, and occasionally, a cool Medalla quenches our thirst.

For now, that wonderful spirit of chillness that I love in my fellow islanders remains fully intact.

In the coming days, I hope that some things will start improving so that people are least able to get gasoline and visit the remaining relatives from whom they may not have yet heard from.

Pretty much everyone I know on this island has been accounted for and is well.


Puerto Rico, USA. 9/24/17

A friend on the island writes . . .

More and more buildings are going dark.

As the reality of the situation becomes better known, people are starting to conserve, and even those with generators are only using them a few hours a day.

The roads are starting to let up a little now as the curfew was lifted at 5 a.m., and people are starting to line up outside of closed gas stations for the chance to get some fuel for their cars. One more cigarette, one more sip of coffee, and I will be joining them.

And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Flights off the island are either fully booked or canceled. For weeks.
I live here, I have a home here, so I don’t have to be at the airport every day with, all of my belongings, trying to return from a vacation that turned out to be anything but. I’m fairly sure that all the people that I care about here are safe, even if their homes and possessions are damaged. My own home while by no means comfortable remains intact.

And I pray, for us, the people in Mexico, and in thanks for all the things that I have.

Which definitely includes a kick-ass support system, in the form of all of you who’ve reached out to various methods to make sure that I’m okay, that my spirit’s okay, which it is.


Notes on Coates

In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates (TNC) uses the election of Donald Trump, “the first white president,” to offer a blockbuster portrayal of the politics of race and white supremacy in the U.S. As political analysis, it is disputable and fair game. Out of respect for the erudite, eloquent, and accomplished Mr. Coates, let’s not hold back, okay?

The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election was founded on a positively tiny margin of votes in just three states. As such, a change in any number of factors could have brought about a different result. Such factors include but are not limited to: the 11th hour “Comey letter” suggesting malfeasance on Hillary Clinton’s part, Russian interventions via the Internet, suppression of African-American and other voters, bizarre mainstream media coverage, Bernie Sanders’ blistering primary challenge, and an assortment of questionable decisions by Hillary Clinton prior to 2016, and by her campaign in 2016. Here are 37 reasons that could explain the outcome. And don’t forget Facebook.

In the inevitable post-mortems, many tend to fixate on the factor that is most congenial to their own pre-existing political views. The same was true after the 2000 election, one with a ridiculously narrow margin of victory. Monocausal explanations, especially those founded on analytical biases, ought to be rejected. With such a narrow margin, it would only have taken a reversal of one factor to change the outcome. The counter-factual is unknown.

The other inescapable implication of the tiny victory margin is that it is problematic to associate any great, purported shift in the zeitgeist to such a small difference. To be sure, the implications of unified Republican control of the Congress, White House, and Supreme Court are malignant and momentous. But our subject here is the thinking that informs and misinforms voting behavior.

The cause that TNC adds to the mix is racism. My claim is that Coates’ analysis is both unsupported and destructive of progressive politics. His erudition and literary talent are not in question. I don’t fault his intentions. Some think he is facing hard truths and call his view realistic. That is the question, isn’t it? How real is it? What’s in question is not TNC’s experience of racial oppression, of the psychology underlying it, or his ability to bring it to life in a text. I’m talking about a political analysis.

If I felt under constant, homicidal threat as a person of Jewish descent, or if I had personally witnessed the deaths of relatives in the Holocaust, I don’t doubt that I would tend to dwell on my Jewishness, such as it is, and ponder the endurance of anti-Semitism through the ages. On this level, I can hardly fault TNC for centering race and white supremacy in his account.

Coates’ text still deserves rigorous criticism. It makes explicit reference to political events and persons. It embodies a political stance. Whether you call him a politician or public intellectual, TNC is interested in politics, and his politics are interested in you.

The stand-out feature of Coates’ analysis is the timelessness of racism in the U.S. In his telling, it begins when America’s white indentured servants are socially promoted into a racially-superior class. The psychological dependence of white people of lesser status on their allocated privilege, which hinges on their enjoying a position superior to that of black people, becomes the ineradicable obstacle to working class unity and social-democratic transformation.

The poster boy for the ascendance of whiteness as the fundamental governing principle in U.S. politics is of course the 45th president, a man so manifestly inferior in all respects that it is truly impossible to imagine an African-American with any subset of his deficiencies going nearly as far in the world.

Trump’s racism is explicit. It has been documented to be a long-standing component of his outlook. Perhaps Coates’ most powerful assertion is that his millions of voters were okay with it. There is no getting around that. A President Trump is prima facie proof of racism at large. So far, so good.

The problem here is that as matter of electoral dynamics, Trump’s victory was not necessarily the result of an uprising by the white working class (WWC). Coates himself makes clear that Trump won more white votes than Hillary Clinton in all types of economic and demographic groups. Trump’s white coalition transcended class.

Coates does not show any movement of WWC voters from Democratic to Republican due to Trump. That could be called a kind of uprising, if it had happened. There is some evidence for it, if we define WWC as those with no college. In this sense TNC sells his analysis a bit short. Even so, WWC voters were trending Republican before Trump ever put his face into presidential politics.

An alternative hypothesis is that the Democrats suffered from a multiracial working-class uprising, one in which white voters bolted for Trump, while non-white 2012 voters stayed home. That leads to a different narrative, one that proposes a Democratic Party failure in the realm of class politics.

Please, let’s not recoil as if I’m blaming black folks for Trump. The responsibility lies with the Democratic Party for not keeping voters of all colors on board. But if the race factor is more about Democrats than Republicans, that goes against the grain of TNC’s focus on Trump’s explicit, vicious, unforgivable racism. The white supremacy rap doesn’t fly nearly as smoothly when applied to Hillary Clinton, whatever her faults.

If there wasn’t a WWC uprising, maybe it was more generally a white riot. Again, to cite the 2016 election as a sign of something new, we need to compare it to prior elections.

When it comes to turnout, the salient fact in 2016 was a modest increase in white turnout, and a significant decline in non-white turnout. This doesn’t debunk Coates, since his thesis would be supported by evidence of a great shift from D to R among white voters, but it takes us a step closer to some illumination which Coates provides himself, when he says “Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012.” Actually, Trump did somewhat worse with white voters than Mitt Romney did in 2012, particularly with women. But we don’t need to quibble.

Little change in overall white turnout combined with little change in Trump’s share of the white vote blows up the white riot theory. Yes, we’re drowning in a sewer of racism, thanks in part to the Trump cultural revolution, but that doesn’t explain the ascendance of the “first white president.” Trump ran against the Republican establishment in the primaries, but these same worthies closed ranks around him at the convention. Only recently have some fault lines appeared. The 2016 Republican electorate was the usual gang of idiots.

Ironically, TNC’s one-dimensional focus on whiteness glosses over a genuinely new element that Trump has introduced into our politics: the elevation of the most racist elements of the population. We now have outright Nazis and Klansmen achieving social media celebrity and drawing crowds to speeches and marches. These deplorables were never going to vote Democratic, so their electoral significance in 2016 vs. 2012 can be discounted. However, in this regard TNC’s whiteness frame is too broad: it obscures the progress of U.S. neo-fascism.

Nor does the often-remarked on movement of Obama 2012 voters to Trump make any sense in the context of Coates’ analysis. After voting for a black man, maybe twice, you say, “The guy I really want to be president is the big racist”? To explain that, we would need to theorize an upsurge of raging misogyny, but that’s not in TNC’s wheelhouse.

In a television interview, TNC invoked the Jackie Robinson example – racists cheering for black sports heroes. That analogy to a presidential election is strained. As everyone knows, Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens disproved to the least-educated minds the premise of a white race superior in all respects. Racism has transitioned to the view that non-whites can run and jump, but they still don’t deserve the respect of their fellow citizens.

To say racism has always been with us, not least with the benefit of Coates’ historical examples, is not to say the condition of racism’s victims has been frozen since time immemorial. And that is not to say progress has always been swell and will surely continue. There has been progress, and there could be more. In this sense, Coates’ use of history is ahistorical. Pessimism is certainly justified, but it need not be taken to the nth degree.

Hopes to the contrary are stigmatized by TNC as blindness to the intensity of racism, if not to racism itself. There is a strain of emotional blackmail that runs through Coates’ essay, not to mention in much less edifying Twitter spats on this question. If you don’t buy what he’s selling, your perception of the dominance of racism in all of American life falls somewhere in the range between malign neglect and malevolence.

I am not here to enthuse a post-racial paradise, that things have gotten much better and progress is inevitable. The former is incontrovertible. On the latter, I’m afraid not. The arc of history bends every which way.

As a policy guy, to me another off-putting dimension of the TNC view is its gloss on Republican economics. His implication is that racism is the fundamental motivation for the GOP legislative agenda, personified by Trump’s intense, personal hatred of our first black president. To the contrary, Republican political economy is all about exploiting the working class for the sake of the 1%. Racism is a political tool. Racism is constructed for the ulterior motive of class domination. It’s all about the money. I don’t really think TNC would disagree, but such considerations get utterly lost in his story.

When it comes to Democrats, class politics – a focus on programs of universal benefit to the working class is the question. How big to go. (In DP-speak, for “middle-class working families.” They play by the rules!)

TNC claims that social-democratic proposals cannot overcome the depth of racism in the white working class. He goes so far as to describe their advocacy as “escapism.” If you take exception, he will remind you that “working class whites had been agents of racist terrorism since at least the draft riots of 1863.” This can be an intimidating assertion to a white reader, but it is also rubbish. It visits the sins of some on an entire racial-economic class, for all time. It’s like Trump and his ‘Mexican rapists.’

Such a standpoint lends cold comfort to the predominantly minority workers striking McDonalds, “Fighting for Fifteen,” and battling Walmart for union representation, or to minority youth financially blocked from a post-secondary education. Neither is there much hope for the Black Lives Matter movement, if it is doomed to eternal rejection by an irredeemable white majority.

The postulate of ineradicable racism is vulnerable to two criticisms:

1) It is not necessary to convert the WWC wholesale to progressive politics to win elections. Remember the tiny margins of defeat in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Only a few to whom class politics can appeal are needed. Even some who voted in response to Trump’s racial cues may be redeemable. Democratic politicians have been winning elections with the benefit of some racist votes for a long time.

2) Social-democratic proposals can motivate greater turn-out among people of color, who are overwhelmingly working class.

Either could have reversed the November outcome.

It is undeniable that ‘universal programs’ are not a sure-fire political winner. If they were, by now we would have full-spectrum social-democracy. More important, they do not go as far as desirable in addressing race-specific (and gender-specific) disparities. When a rising tide lifts all boats, it does not necessarily narrow the gaps between them. So more than class politics is needed for social justice. This is the truth of Coates’ disapproval of “raceless anti-racism” on the left. At the same time, there should be no doubt that social-democratic programs disproportionately benefit minorities and women. Not for nothing did Martin Luther King Jr. come to this view. Recognizing the needs of the white working class, those indeed held in common with minorities, doesn’t neglect the black working class. It magnifies its political salience. Some of the major injuries of black workers are also the injuries of all.

Social-democratic programs sound great and poll well, but they are hard to actually implement. Inconvenient practical problems arise, usually on the financing side. Higher taxes are a buzzkill. Race-specific remedies of any scale are harder still. Both should be pursued. Personally, I would fault both Clinton and Sanders for falling short in this respect. Hillary Clinton’s purported advantage over Sanders in this dimension was mostly hot air. She knew how to “say their names,” but she didn’t go much further than that.

Still, one shortfall of critiques along the lines of TNC is their failure to propose remedies that scale and that have any claim to political realism. Reparations founders on the latter count. These critiques attack progressive, class politics but provide little in the way of practical alternatives. They encourage defeatism.

TNC’s voice is strong. We might hope that his account, by shocking the conscience, acts like a gateway drug to a more constructive, activist political outlook.

Nazi-punching for beginners

Admit it, whoever you are, you want to punch Nazis, and so do I. But emotional catharsis is not politics. Neither is retribution, no matter how well-justified. Of course, what we all want is to relegate fascism to the dustbin of history, but that is a political project.

The facts on the ground are these. The aggregation of Nazis, “Alt-Rights,” Confederacy lovers, worshippers of Odin, creepy dudes in khakis and white golf shirts, etc. are organized to fight in the streets. Even when outnumbered, an organized group can hold its own against a larger number of less well-organized people. How well-organized is the left, Antifa, or whomever?

I was not in Charlottesville. From my vantage point, the Rightists had rehearsed and were coordinated. The Black Bloc/anarchists/Black Lives Matter contingents did not appear to be so. As I said, I wasn’t on the ground, but that’s the way it looked. How did Deandre Harris get surrounded by five thugs in that parking garage? There are tactics for self-defense, but I didn’t see any in operation. Corrections to this observation are welcome. My argument does not depend on it.

I’m not discounting the bravery or intentions of Antifa or BLM. They have the power to inflict damage on random fascists, but what we need most is the power to defend allies. I’m not talking about the homicide-by-car; there is no way that could have been prevented.

What I mean is, to the extent possible, the first rule is to devote available physical force to defending your own. My impression is the Black Blockists etc. may be evolving in this direction, which is all to the good. Here is a report from Slate that testifies to their usefulness in Charlottesville. On the other hand, the group in Berkeley assaulted random Trumpies and journalists. Their action was a disgrace and a huge gift to Trump. It’s easy to find evidence that the fascists are deliberating seeking to provoke

On the other hand, the Antifa group in Berkeley assaulted random Trumpies and journalists. Their action was a disgrace and a huge gift to Trump. It’s easy to find evidence that the fascists are deliberating seeking to provoke and film assaults on non-violent pretend-supporters of free speech. They have a better grasp of Gandhi than some lefties. Since they’re supposed to be anarchists, I assume local Antifa groups are each responsible for their own behavior. The sins of Berkeley need not be visited on the Antifas of, say, Charlottesville.

We need to game this out. Suppose our side was better organized. Used military formations, command and control, more weaponry. The other side could match it, with two inescapable advantages. First, they have more guns. If the left started winning more street fights, more of our people, as well as random bystanders, would get shot. Some have already been shot. Second, as battles got more intense, the police would tilt to the side of the Right. It always does. Does anyone think a merry, multi-cultural band of heavily-armed lefties would not provoke an overwhelming police response? Ask Bobby Seale.

Consider also the political optics, in the current trendy lingo. The onus for the death of an innocent demonstrator has settled onto the rightists. There is no ambiguity about the allegiance of the perpetrator. Moreover, rightists of varied stripes stood shoulder-to-shoulder with straight-up Nazis. The Nazis were the vanguard, the rest were at least fellow-travelers. That means they all get tarred with the same brush. Forget “Alt-Right” or “white nationalists” or “neo-“ anything. They’re a mob of Nazis.

We can still be grateful for the fact that in the U.S. today, this is a bad political place to be. Trump’s outrageous apologetics for a mob of Nazis is political poison. The only thing that lets a little air out of this balloon is the fact that he can take note of unprovoked assaults by armed anarchists. One value of the Vice report that by now everyone has seen is that it makes clear the Charlottesville punks in khakis and white polo shirts are chanting Nazi slogans (“Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil”). All the rest gave us the benefit of clearly identifying themselves with confederate or neo-nazi regalia.

As awful as a mob of Nazis can be, their constitutional right to assemble and speak is beyond question. (ACLU donations here. Really!) Leftists who attack those legal acts with force, even when they can prevail on the ground, will have the losing side of the political argument.

So we lose on the ground and we give up points in the political argument. Not good.

The solution, I submit, is twofold.

  1. We need to distinguish non-aggression from non-violence. I’m no pacifist. Violence can solve problems, no question. Of course I’d like to punch Nazis. I can’t say I would have the courage to fight thugs thirty years younger than my old and out-of-shape self. But fantasy aside, aggression will not solve this problem. This is a political project. Non-aggression – letting them march and demonstrate – is recommended not as a moral act, the hell with that, but as a tactical imperative. It wins the political argument. Winning the political argument puts pressure on the State to turn the police loose on the mob of Nazis. The radical line that attacking fascists is self-defense because their mere presence or existence is an attack might pass muster at proceedings of the Fourth International, but it does not impress your everyday American. It does not advance the political project.

Non-aggression need not imply non-violence. Self-defense by any means necessary is essential. The objective is to register a counter-presence to rightist gatherings but refrain from attacking it. Avoiding aggression does not imply accepting violent assault. For the sake of the political project, it is essential that any brawl be recognizable as the result of aggression from the other side. That’s why the automobile homicide is so uncomfortable for Trump; there is no ambiguity about the guilt of the perpetrator and the innocence of the victim.

  1. The principal vulnerability of the mob of Nazis is not on the ground, since as above, when we game it out, we still come up short. Their greatest vulnerability is to an unleashed State apparatus. Where is the impetus for that? It comes from two places.

One is the growing proliferation of social movements around all the issues that motivate The Resistance ™, Our Revolution, and all the other agitation. Their power is organization. It has already been demonstrated, as we can see in the utter lack of achievements by the Trump Administration.

The other is the included capability of that mobilization in the electoral arena, considering the many vulnerable Republican Members of Congress, going into 2018. A Democratic wave makes impeachment a practical possibility. In fact, the threat of a wave before the fact does as well. Both increase pressure on the Department of Justice and on police departments to act.

The radical rejoinder to this argument, since this debate is as old as the hills, is that courageous assaults on Nazis will inspire the public to greater levels of support. We’ll have bigger and better mobs on our side. But as I suggested above, game it out. Does the erosion of norms of civil debate and everyday politics help us more than them? I don’t think so. Do we observe this strategy working in the past? I would say no.

Of course, it’s hard to argue with self-defense, by any means necessary. But self-defense is only politically viable when it is clear that the other side is acting outside the law as an aggressor. Chaos in the streets begets melees in which no such clarity is possible.

There is a need to act, but actions that satisfy are not necessarily those that move us forward.

The U.S. Welfare State – Too White, Too Old, Too Republican?

My libertarian Internet friend Will Wilkinson has a post that deserves some comment. He claims the U.S. welfare state’s benefits go disproportionately to old white Republicans. I suggest some over-simplification here. I’ll note as a preamble that Will’s roost – the Niskanen Center – is an interesting outfit that broke away from the more conventionally libertarian Cato Institute. Your genuine libts at both places do useful work on national defense, law enforcement, and civil liberties.

My summary characterization of Niskanen, frankly not based on much exploration, is that unlike the Cato people, they are congenial to social insurance and public assistance. This is a welcome shift.

Anyway, back to the issue. Will has a bar chart that shows spending on the biggest Federal benefit programs as a share of total Federal spending. In these terms, the biggest programs are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He lists Social Security Disability Insurance separately.

Will’s focus is the secret love of old white Republicans for the benefits they receive from the largest programs, as well as arbitrary distinctions between “stuff we deserve” and “stuff those people don’t deserve.” This is well-taken. I might cite a book on this topic, The Hidden Welfare State by Christopher Howard. A Google search on that title yields a wealth of additional material.

One of my objections is that the claim of disproportionate benefit by race is exaggerated in several respects. The simplest pertains to the cases of Medicaid and SSDI, both of which disproportionately benefit the poor in general and, in the case of SSDI, non-white recipients.

The second stems from Will’s gloss on the nature of social insurance. Social insurance is a hybrid of aid based on both contribution and need. So yes, the bulk of social insurance goes to elderly because it is founded on replacing earnings of those who can no longer work, including their dependents.

Since the young’s needs are not based on some interruption of their work history, they don’t come in for much aid focused on retirees. The predominance of Social Security and Medicare benefits for the elderly is a feature, not a bug. The same goes for the extent to which benefits for old age and survivors (but not disability) are weighted on white elderly; it stems from the insurance/contributory of the program. They earned more, they get more. Again, a feature, not a bug.

It’s always possible to dial up the need factor in social insurance for the sake of helping minorities or lower-earning workers in general. One needs to balance that objective with political considerations. Political support for social insurance rests on the pillar of contributions. “I paid for these benefits.” (Of course, nobody had a choice as to whether to make ‘contributions,’ since they come in the form of payroll taxes.) Those who have earned less due to historical discrimination by race or gender will contribute less and get less in benefits. Again, a feature, not a bug. Even so, lower earners do get some advantage in benefits, compared to their contributions, relative to higher earners.

What’s incontrovertible is the neglect of the young in poor families, of all races. Absent the protection of social insurance, they are mostly left to depend on public assistance in the form of food stamps, housing benefits, and cash welfare. Food stamp benefits (officially, “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” or SNAP) have held up relatively well over the decades, housing not so much, while cash welfare, thanks to the 1996 “reform,” has been decimated.

My beef with the metric underlying the chart – and a good chart tends to dominate the commentary in which it’s embedded – is that the more salient consideration is benefits relative to need, not as a share of public spending.

Of course, aid to the young is egregiously low in this respect as well, but aid to the elderly is not necessarily so. After all, the average Social Security check is about $1,500 a month. Hardly enough to live high on the hog if that’s your only source of income, which is true of most retirees. Shares of government spending would be more relevant if it was possible to say that the total of devoted resources was correct and it was only the division of the pie that was wrong.

Another example: the level of unemployment benefits in the chart looks minuscule. The data is from 2015, seven years after the Great Recession. I’d be happy to see higher benefits now, but once again, what matters is the outlay compared to need, where ‘need’ is premised on both wage levels and social-redistributive considerations, as above.

In general, when we reduce analysis of social welfare to simple dollars, we risk missing the underlying purposes of aid. A generous interpretation of such purposes is called for.

As for Will’s ‘Republican’ bit, I’d say that’s 75% trolling. But why not.

P.S. Right on cue, Google drops a turd in my ad space. It’s their world, we’re just living in it.


Are blogs over?

I hope not. If you’re not too busy on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, give us a hello.

A few updates. I moved out to the country with my new bride (#3), and I like it a lot. I retired from the Federal government — the Government Accountability Office — at the end of this past May. I joined the Democratic Socialists of America, though I haven’t done anything besides go to a few marches and meetings.

Lately I’ve written for The Baffler, The Daily Beast, The Boston Review, In These Times, Democracy Journal, and a batch of newspapers. I’ve also started a book. My post-employment income is modest, so I’m always looking for gigs. Uber is a possibility. Maybe pet-sitting.

I had a doggie but had to give him up. He is doing well with a new family. His name is Tut. Here he is:

I started a new website with my buddy Robert Dreyfuss — ThePopulist.Buzz — consisting of proper news and commentary. Bob is a prolific journalist, me not so much on either the prolific or the journalist part. Here I’ll be commenting in a less formal way on whatever strikes my fancy.

I don’t get out much, by choice. This blog is the way I hang out. I’ll see you around, so to speak.