December 1, 2020

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States with few coronavirus restrictions are spreading the virus beyond their borders (Pro Publica, 12/01/20)

Weary of Washington's restrictions, thousands of residents made the easy drive over the border to vacation, shop and dine in Idaho. Gilliard resisted temptation until he learned that the annual Panhandle Bluesfest would go on as scheduled near Priest River, Idaho, on Sept. 12. A keyboardist who used to own a blues club just outside Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Gilliard was buoyed after months of relative isolation by the prospect of hanging out with friends while listening to music on a remote mountainside surrounded by soaring pine trees and thick hemlocks. He decided to go.

A friend took a picture of Gilliard at the festival. Wearing a bandanna fashioned as a headband, a cut-off T-shirt and dark glasses, he was perched on a tree stump and pointing back at the camera. As was permitted by local regulations at the time, he was not wearing a mask, nor were about 10 people sitting together in the background.

As the number of COVID-19 cases skyrockets nationwide, the extent of the public health response varies from one state -- and sometimes one town -- to the next. The incongruous approaches and the lack of national standards have created confusion, conflict and a muddled public health message, likely hampering efforts to stop the spread of the virus. The country's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said last month that the country needs "a uniform approach" to fighting the virus instead of a "disjointed" one.

Nowhere are these regulatory disparities more counterproductive and jarring than in the border areas between restrictive and permissive states; for example, between Washington and Idaho, Minnesota and South Dakota, and Illinois and Iowa. In each pairing, one state has imposed tough and sometimes unpopular restrictions on behavior, only to be confounded by a neighbor's leniency. Like factories whose emissions boost asthma rates for miles around, a state's lax public health policies can wreak damage beyond its borders.

"In some ways, the whole country is essentially living with the strategy of the least effective states because states interconnect and one state not doing a good job will continue to spread the virus to other states," said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. "States can't wall themselves off."

A motorcycle rally in August in Sturgis, South Dakota, with half a million attendees from around the country spread COVID-19 to neighboring Minnesota and beyond, according to Melanie Firestone, an epidemic intelligence service officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who co-authored a report on the event's impact.

South Dakota "didn't have policies regarding mask use or event size, and we see that there was an impact in a state that did have such policies," Firestone said. "The findings from this outbreak support having consistent approaches across states. We are all in it together when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19."

Viruses don't respect geographic boundaries. 

....but Trumpism is neighbor-hatred.

(N.B. This is why local gun restrictions are futile.)

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Churchgoer Gets COVID After Saying 'I'm Willing to Die for My Religion,' Wants Prayers for Vulnerable Husband (SOO KIM, 12/1/20, Newsweek)

A churchgoer who claimed she would "deal with it" if she got COVID while attending mass, has tested positive for the virus and is seeking prayers for her vulnerable husband.

User @aliinwillowland tweeted on November 26: "Idk [I don't know] who needs to hear this, but this is a reminder that I'm willing to die for my religion. If I get covid attending mass then I'll deal with it, but I'm NOT missing out on worshiping. You don't get to bar me from my religion bc [because] you're scared. Be mad. Don't care." not worthy of worship. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Black Fragility?A bestselling book offers a prescription for race relations that casts whites as sinners and blacks as children. (Coleman Hughes, November 29, 2020, City Journal)

DiAngelo's book does more than rehearse the familiar tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT)--racism is systemic and pervasive; race-blind standards are really white supremacist standards in disguise; lived experience confers special knowledge on victims of racism; and so on--it also uses simple and direct language to teach white people how to talk about race from a CRT perspective. Drawing on her academic work as well as her experience providing corporate diversity training, DiAngelo puts forth her theory of "white fragility"--a set of psychological defense mechanisms that white people use in order to avoid acknowledging their own racism. These defense mechanisms include "silence, defensiveness, argumentation, certitude, and other forms of pushback" in the face of racism accusations.

The book is hilariously awful, but casting herself--unintentionally--as a white savior is sublime. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Does Paul Krugman even read his own columns?  (Cockburn, December 1, 2020, Spectator US)

Krugman's latest column, published Monday evening, asks how the coming Biden administration will ever possibly cope with the unprecedented idea of having an opposing party with political disagreements.

'When Joe Biden is inaugurated, he will immediately be confronted with an unprecedented challenge... he'll be the first modern US President trying to govern in the face of an opposition that refuses to accept his legitimacy. And no, Democrats never said Donald Trump was illegitimate, just that he was incompetent and dangerous.'

Now, admittedly, Krugman is a Princeton professor and Cockburn is a pseudonymous blogger who wears a funny hat. But come on, Krugman. Joe Biden is the first modern president to be called illegitimate? You may have once said that it would have no greater economic impact than the fax machine, but surely even you know that Google exists? Cockburn is irredeemably lazy and it took him not even a minute to find your own statements from 2016:

'So this was a tainted election. It was not, as far as we can tell, stolen in the sense that votes were counted wrong, and the result won't be overturned. But the result was nonetheless illegitimate in important ways; the victor was rejected by the public, and won the Electoral College only thanks to foreign intervention and grotesquely inappropriate, partisan behavior on the part of domestic law enforcement... [N]othing that happened on Election Day or is happening now is normal. Democratic norms have been and continue to be violated, and anyone who refuses to acknowledge this reality is, in effect, complicit in the degradation of our republic. This president will have a lot of legal authority, which must be respected. But beyond that, nothing: he doesn't deserve deference, he doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt.'

Doesn't Paul Krugman have any pride? 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


As Medicare embraces telehealth, here's what to know about costs and what's covered (Walecia Konrad, 12/01/20, Market Watch)

Insurers and employers for years have been urging the use of telehealth as a low-cost alternative for nonemergency care. But patients were wary about signing up and Medicare was slow to embrace it, which limited telehealth to certain types of visits for patients in rural areas.

That changed with COVID-19. In response to the pandemic, CMS removed barriers to telehealth coverage, allowing patients throughout the country to access care from their homes.

The agency this year has added 135 services to the list of telehealth it will pay for during this public health crisis, including non-COVID-19 doctor visits, initial inpatient visits with a new practitioner, discharge services and cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation treatments. CMS also increased the types of health care providers who can use telehealth, waived patient copays and boosted reimbursement rates to amounts similar to those paid for an in-person visit.

The rule changes have opened up more telehealth options for both Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage, an all-in-one alternative offered by private insurers.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The Brilliant, Scabrous Satire of The Boys (KYLE SMITH, November 30, 2020, National Review)

The Boys is a very left-wing work that nevertheless gives right-wingers much to feast upon. The comic book on which it is based, launched in 2006 by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, reflects the mid-2000s Daily Kos-style paranoid fury about George W. Bush, Iraq, and the War on Terror. But in its second season, it gradually morphs into an unhinged allegory of white supremacism, anti-immigration sentiment, and, by implication, the popularity of Donald Trump. I generally find such veiled polemics to be boring in the extreme -- hectoring, shrill, monomaniacal, bonkers, and ultimately hate-fueled in their underlying assumptions. Yet The Boys is one of the most amusing shows going, a satiric machine-gun attack on a gallery of cultural icons that have richly earned their drubbing.

November 30, 2020

Posted by orrinj at 6:44 PM


Fabricator and fraudster (Oz Katerji, December 2020, The Critic)

Robert Fisk, who worked as a foreign correspondent first for The Times and since 1989 for the Independent, had the most influence of any journalist on my career. But it wasn't because of his charismatic speech in 2010, or because of the many articles I had read that had influenced my understanding of the Middle East as a student. 

Fisk did not speak fluent Arabic, not even after living in the Middle East for more than 40 years

It was because learning for myself that Fisk was a fraud, a fabricator and a fantasist was fundamental to my understanding of the very concept of journalism, and the responsibility that this profession is supposed to carry. He was guilty of the same "propaganda campaigns" he accused the Western media of conducting.

The veneration of Fisk, in his obituaries and throughout his career, serve as an indictment of a British foreign press that continued to indulge a man who they knew was violating not just ethical boundaries, but also moral ones. In a way, the glowing obituaries, free from the constraints of the normal journalistic practice of fact-checking and evidence, were a fitting tribute to Fisk. Like him, they preferred to tell a story that was not true, because stories are often far more comforting than the reality. 

So let's separate the myths from the facts. Fisk did not speak fluent Arabic, not even after living in the Middle East for more than 40 years. Leaving aside the testimony of Arabic speakers who worked alongside him, his lack of basic knowledge of the language is contained multiple times within his own work, such as his inability to tell the difference between the words "mother" and "nation" in a well-known Ba'athist slogan.

Fisk's reputation among scholars and journalists in the Middle East was destroyed by years of distortions of the truth in his work on Syria. But even before he started embracing pro-Assad conspiracy theories, Fisk's relationship with the truth was widely scrutinised. It is a monumental absurdity that we have a word, "Fisking", in the Cambridge English Dictionary derived from his surname, without any mention of him. 

The frequency with which falsehoods can be found in Fisk's work wasn't so much an open secret as a widely shared joke

The dictionary defines it as "the act of making an argument seem wrong or stupid by showing the mistakes in each of its points, or an instance of doing this." The frequency with which falsehoods can be found in Fisk's work wasn't so much an open secret as a widely shared joke understood by all who worked in the industry. 

Posted by orrinj at 3:48 PM


Joe Biden Has Problems. The World Has Solutions. (John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, November 29, 2020, Bloomberg)

The history of great empires that have turned inward is not a happy one. The next president always needed to confront this -- but Covid-19 has shown that this insular U.S. has fallen much further behind than even pessimists appreciated. 

The global pandemic has been, among many things, a global test of government capacity. Last week Bloomberg News published its study of "virus resilience." The U.S. came in 18th of 53 nations. It would have been far lower, if not for its private sector's success in producing vaccines. On the basic Hobbesian test of keeping its people alive, the American Leviathan has failed.

The U.S. is closing in on 800 deaths for every million people. That is a slightly better record than Britain and Belgium, but it is far worse than most of its allies. Germany, with 170 deaths per million, has done six times better. But the really shocking comparative numbers come from East Asia, where plenty of governments that a generation ago looked across the Pacific to the U.S. as the great role model have now outperformed their erstwhile exemplar.

Japan has lost fewer than 2,000 people, or a hundredth of the U.S. death toll, despite having an elderly population and a supersized capital city. Taiwan has gone more than 200 days without a domestic case of Covid-19. Singapore is beating itself up because its mortality rate is edging close to five deaths per million.

Perhaps most pointedly of all, China is now almost back to work as normal. Even allowing for Beijing's sluggish start in dealing with the virus, and throwing in some skepticism about its official death toll of just three deaths per million, it has plainly been far better at protecting its people from dying than the U.S. And the rest of the world has seen it. 

There are two lame excuses for this -- both of which Biden should dismiss. The first is that high U.S. mortality rates are part of the price you pay for freedom and democracy. Though China's success certainly has something to do with autocracy, all the other countries at the top of the Covid-19 league tables are also freedom-loving democracies; they're just better-organized freedom-loving democracies than the U.S. For instance, New York City and Seoul are both lively cities with crowded subways and a wild nightlife. But New York has lost more than 22,000 people, while Seoul has lost a few dozen. 

East Asia's supremacy at Covid-19 was not a fluke. Look at the global rankings for high schools and health care: East Asian countries are clustering at the top alongside the Scandinavians. Or look at infrastructure. The gap between Asian airports and New York's La Guardia or JFK are obvious to any traveler, but just as striking is the gap in the underlying wiring: Some three-quarters of the world's "smart cities," which have updated their infrastructure for the internet age, are in Asia. 

For nearly 50 years, Asian countries, led by Singapore, have been quietly building smarter and better governments in the same way that Toyota and Honda once built smarter and better cars. The difference is that, while Detroit and the rest of U.S. industry eventually copied Japan's "lean manufacturing" so they could fight back, Washington's politicians have not copied Singaporean lean government; indeed, they barely know what it is.

The second excuse that Biden should dismiss is that America's failures are all Trump's fault. The outgoing president may have actively obstructed U.S. attempts to deal with Covid-19, but he did not create a health system that was designed to help the old and the rich, not the poor. A pandemic was always bound to expose that. All those people who died in New York City did so under a Democratic mayor and a Democratic governor. 

The same goes for many other things where the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world. Trump said some unhelpful things after George Floyd's death, but he did not invent racist policing -- one of us covered the Rodney King riots nearly three decades ago. Polarized politics? Poor schools? A convoluted tax system? Trump hardly made any of these problems better, but the U.S. public sector started falling behind its peers long before he even became a reality TV star.

With a little reading, the president-elect could discover that other countries are doing plenty of clever things that the U.S. could copy. Formerly socialist Scandinavia is a world leader in contracting out parts of the public sector to the private sector, including in sensitive areas such as health care and education. Germany has an exemplary decentralized health system that covers everyone at a fraction of the cost of the U.S. system.

India has given every citizen -- more than a billion people -- a digital identity that can be used to deliver benefits to a population that has high levels of illiteracy. Tiny Estonia has made it possible to do a host of things online, including voting, filing tax returns, participating in the census and setting up businesses -- enough to save about 2% of gross domestic product through efficiency.  

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How wind and solar toppled Exxon from its place as America's top energy company (Tim McDonnell, 11/30/20, Quartz)

In early October, the world passed a milestone in the clean energy transition that, until very recently, seemed unthinkable: Exxon was unseated as the most valuable energy company in America. And not by Chevron, its closely-trailing oil and gas competitor. No, Chevron got leapfrogged too--by NextEra Energy, a company that has built the world's largest collection of wind and solar farms. [...]

True to its name, NextEra offers a glimpse into the future: A world in which the climate change economy has anointed a new set of energy titans. Over the last two decades, the company has grown to control about 16 gigawatts of wind and 3 gigawatts of solar nationwide--more capacity than exists in all of Australia, and more than twice the wind and solar capacity of NextEra's nearest competitor, according to Rystad Energy. According to the company's third-quarter call with investors, it has a backlog of contracts for at least that much more.

"No one in any industry has done more than NextEra Energy to address CO2 emissions," the company bragged in a 2019 investor presentation. Whether or not that's true, it's certain that no other company has done more to add zero-carbon electricity to the US grid, which accounts for more than one-quarter of the country's carbon footprint. And it accomplished that feat while churning out cash for investors: Shareholder returns bloomed 530% over the last decade, more than double the S&P 500.

Posted by orrinj at 12:50 PM


French Republican hypocrisy and the long slow descent into reaction: Macron's shift to the right appears to have been a long time coming. But recent events show how quickly a slide towards authoritarianism can take place. (Aurelien Mondon, 30 November 2020, openDemocracy)

Sarkozy was elected after a campaign in which he unashamedly hunted on Front National territory, promising that he would go and get Jean-Marie Le Pen's voters "one by one" if necessary. That he did, and the old extreme right leader suffered a severe defeat. However, on the night of the first round, Marine Le Pen, his campaign director, declared that the defeat was irrelevant as the campaign marked the victory of their ideas.

This was prescient and during his reign, Sarkozy not only helped normalise the far right party through his tough discourse on security, but also entrenched a reactionary understanding of a number of key Republican concepts in public discourse. By 2012, it was accepted across the political spectrum that laïcité, which had consecrated the separation of church and state in 1905, was in danger and that stringent laws against certain communities must be passed to prevent its demise and that of the Republic itself. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Sarkozy and his government diverted attention to Muslim communities and a pseudo national identity crisis, which they believed would be more easily addressed than the economic one.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Sarkozy and his government diverted attention to Muslim communities and a pseudo national identity crisis, which they believed would be more easily addressed than the economic one.

This culminated in the 2010 Law banning face coverings in public spaces. It was clear then that the law was not about any and all face coverings, but targeted the burqa, and through it shone the spotlight on racialised Muslim communities who had grown increasingly vilified and demonised in the 2000s. The 2004 law against religious symbols in schools had already demonised young girls and their families by forcing them to remove particular garments, without ever considering these may be a choice and that their forcible removal was indeed a curtailment of both freedom of expression and religion, whilst serving to further isolate those who were forced to wear it, risking them being taken out of schools altogether.

As with the 2004 law, the law of 2010 was pitched as an emancipatory law, with Eric Besson, a former socialist at the head of the Orwellian Minister of Immigration and National Identity, declaring that it would be an opportunity for 'social life and civilization to be explained' to the victims. As always, there was no thought given to the agency of these women, or to the very simple fact that were they forced to wear the burqa, preventing them from wearing it public would most likely mean they would be forced into remaining in the private sphere, further limiting their freedom. Women wearing the burqa (less than 2000 by most counts) were turned into both threats and victims in typically orientalist tropes, and almost never consulted/given voice in discussions on the issue. As is always the case with liberal islamophobia and racism more generally, justifications based on potentially liberal and progressive tropes such as women's rights are only ever truly anchored in the othering and demonising of Muslims. The irony wasn't lost when ten years later face coverings would become compulsory in France... [...]

Since the reshuffle in the summer amidst the Coronavirus crisis, Macron has taken a further shift to the right, as exemplified by the appointment of Jean Castex as Prime Minister and Gérald Darmanin as Minister of the Interior. This ideological positioning appears to have been a long time coming, as exemplified by the interview Macron gave to Valeurs Actuelles, a major far right magazine, in October 2019.

What is currently taking place in France is therefore not something that has emerged out of the blue, whether in terms of Macron's own trajectory or the way in which French politics and public discourse have been skewed to the right since the turn of the century. However, recent events have demonstrated how quickly a slide towards authoritarianism can take place.

Following the Valeurs Actuelles interview, it was hardly surprising to witness the return of a reactionary understanding of laïcité to the forefront of French politics, despite Macron having attempted early on in his presidency to offer a more nuanced approach. In early October, the president, announcing a new action plan on laïcité, declared that 'the country is sick from its communautarisme and from a political Islam that wants to topple the values of the Republic'. As France was mourning tens of thousands of deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic, this diversion was reminiscent of Sarkozy's own shameless diversion on a pseudo national identity crisis as France battled its most severe economic downturn in recent history.

...a racial reaction.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


IRS Says Its Own Error Sent $1,200 Stimulus Checks To Non-Americans Overseas (SACHA PFEIFFER, 11/30/20, Morning Edition)

But many non-Americans who received stimulus money do not file U.S. tax returns. One of them is Susanne Wigforss, a 78-year-old Swedish citizen who lives in Stockholm.

Wigforss was surprised in July to get a $1,200 check in the mail from the U.S. Treasury. It was followed by a letter from the White House signed by President Trump, addressed to "My Fellow American" and informing her that "your economic impact payment has arrived."

"I thought, 'I can't believe it,' " Wigforss recalled. "They're sending it to me. Why? I mean, it's crazy, isn't it?"

Only U.S. citizens and U.S. "resident aliens" are eligible for stimulus money -- "resident alien" is a federal tax classification, and to qualify an individual needs a green card or must have been in the U.S. for a certain amount of time -- and Wigforss is neither.

Asked about this by NPR, the IRS acknowledged it mistakenly sent checks to some noncitizens who receive Social Security and other federal benefits -- such as Wigforss, who receives a small Social Security payment from having worked in California for several years.

"This is so wrong," Wigforss said, "because I saw that a number of people were being evicted every month in Chicago, for instance, and I thought one of those families would have needed this stimulus check. Why should a Swedish citizen living abroad receive $1,200?"

"There's no way I'm going to cash this money -- it doesn't belong to me," she added. "But how much money is bleeding out from the Treasury Department because of these [misdirected] stimulus checks, I wonder?"

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


How Modern Neoliberals Rediscovered Neoliberalism (Colin Mortimer, May 18, 2020, Exponents)

In the 1930s liberalism was under fire. The world was grappling with the fallout from WWI and the effects of the ongoing Great Depression. Both socialism and fascism were coming to prominence. Understanding that something must be done, intellectuals at the time were individually coming to the conclusion that something must be wrong with the predominant governing ideology of the time: classical liberalism.

Classical liberalism broadly espoused the view that individual rights and liberty were paramount above all else, and that left alone society would naturally organize itself into a utility-maximizing market economy. Alexander Rüstow, a German sociologist, wrote at the time that under classical liberalism, free markets were considered "as natural and divine laws, upon which the same dignity and even the same universality as those of mathematics were conferred."  But following the Great Depression, intellectuals began to question the idea that the market economy captured the "natural order." Instead, they suggested that the classical market economy was the product of man, particularly the legal system. If this was true, then the market economy was not simply the natural order of society. Rather, the free market was the product of an arbitrary legal system opted into by societies. This meant that the free market was unnatural.

As it became clear that the public was not satisfied with classical liberalism, particularly its laissez-faire approach to economic affairs, intellectuals surmised that unless liberalism were reformed to increase state intervention then it would collapse and give rise to totalitarianism. Rüstow was a leader of this movement. A former socialist who had become disillusioned with the ideology after the rise of the Soviet Union, Rüstow wanted to chart a "Third Way" between the laissez-faire approach and socialism.

Rüstow's conception of a third way ideology sounds similar to the same values modern neoliberals uphold. In his speech, Free Economy, Strong State, which would later be regarded as the founding document of neoliberalism, Rüstow decried excessive government intervention in the market but simultaneously called for the state to set and enforce the rules of the economy. He argued that society should seek to maximize freedom, which neither classical liberalism nor socialism was able to do. His prescriptions mirror this attitude. He believed that the state should promote gainful employment. But minimum wages, he argued, interfered with the market too heavily. Instead, he proposed wage subsidies financed through tax revenue, which could provide the same effect as minimum wages without the market-distorting tradeoffs. He called for the government to end "protectionism", "regulatory capture" and "corporate welfare. In later writings, he also proposed several policies that fall well away from neoliberalism's pejorative conception: a ban on advertising because only large companies could afford it, implementing a tax on the size of business to promote competition and nationalization of all utility companies and weapons manufacturers.

Rüstow's neoliberal project was accompanied by the American journalist Walter Lippmann who formalized the growing consensus to reform liberalism in his book The Great Society. In it, he broadly critiqued collectivism, particularly socialism and fascism, but also of laissez-faire economics and the New Deal. Effective freedom in the economic sphere, he wrote, was not possible without government involvement. He proposed the creation of public health authorities, the prohibition of monopolies, increased income taxes, public education, and more.

Lippmann's book became a hit, and in 1938 the Walter Lippmann Colloquium was organized in Paris to discuss his ideas. Twenty-five intellectuals from around the world were in attendance, including Rüstow, August von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Lippmann himself. But the meeting would not merely be a book club. Rather, the theme of the colloquium became the need to put out a positive vision to replace classical liberalism.

By the end, the attendees had come to an agreement on the need to replace classical liberalism with a new form of liberalism. But the agreement was not felt equally by all. The left-liberals, Rüstow and Lippmann in particular, were more enthusiastic about the project than their right-liberal counterparts Hayek and Mises. Rüstow's influence on the colloquium was evident in the name the attendees agreed to call their new project: neoliberalism.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


'The Arab Spring did not die': A second wave of Mideast protests (HASHEM OSSEIRAN, 11/30/20, AFP)

"The emergence of the 2019 wave of the uprisings in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq showed that the Arab Spring did not die," said Asef Bayat, an expert on revolutions in the Arab world.

"It continued in other countries in the region with somewhat similar repertoires of collective action."

The countries swept up by the latest revolts had initially stood on the sidelines as a contagion of uprisings gripped Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen in 2011.

But in 2019 they led calls for an end to the same regional economic precariousness, corruption, and unresponsive governance that fuelled the Arab protests years earlier.

"The main drivers of the Arab Spring... continue to bubble under the surface of Arab politics," said Arshin Adib-Moghaddam of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"2011 yielded 2019 and 2019 will merge into a new wave of protests," said the author of the book "On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution: Power and Resistance Today".

The dream of Bibi, Donald, and the Sa'uds, that Muslims can be permanently denied democracy, is futile. 

November 29, 2020

Posted by orrinj at 2:31 PM


From Terre Haute to Tehran to your grandma, Trumpism is revealed as a death cult in the end (Will Bunch, 11/29/20, Philadelphia Inquirer)

The brutal killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is arguably the most cinematic moment in our Trumpian death montage, but it's not the most lethal. At a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., Attorney General William Barr's Justice Department is racing to commit state-sanctioned murder against five more inmates before Trump leaves office -- the first time since 1889 that a lame-duck presidency has carried out any executions at all.

These actions come at the end of a year in which death has covered the United States like a shroud, as a result of our utter failure to contain the coronavirus. In El Paso, Texas -- one of the worst epicenters of COVID-19 -- officials recently brought in 10 refrigerated morgue trucks to deal with an overload of deaths, a scene that a skillful director like a Coppola or a Scorsese would surely edit with interspersed cuts of an uncaring president lining up putts on a golf course.

In the end -- and it is the end, no matter what a deranged team of White House lawyers is still babbling about on Newsmax or Facebook or wherever -- Trumpism and America's hopefully brief experience with neo-fascism has been exposed as a death cult.

The latest bizarre plot twist -- an 11th-hour push by Trump and Barr's Justice Department to allow executions by poison gas, firing squads, or the electric chair if that's what's needed to clear any obstacles to the current mode of lethal injection -- probably would have been rejected in most Hollywood writers' rooms for looking too much like 20th-century totalitarianism.

Posted by orrinj at 1:04 PM


Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The vaccine breakthrough (The Week, November 29, 2020)

How do these vaccines work?

Up to now, vaccines have introduced the immune system to a benign version of a virus or bacteria, priming it to recognize and fight the real pathogen if and when it strikes. Vaccines for measles, polio, the flu, and other infectious diseases use parts of or entire viruses that have been weakened or inactivated. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on a novel approach. They rely on a snippet of genetic material called messenger RNA, or mRNA, that is encased in a tiny, protective bubble of fat. Messenger RNA, sometimes called "the software of life," is usually made by DNA to carry instructions to other parts of the cell to make proteins. The vaccine makers constructed this specific form of RNA using the genetic sequence for the coronavirus, which was decoded back in January. That's how they were able to create a viable vaccine with a speed that shattered the previous record of about four years. Moderna went from obtaining the genetic sequence to inoculating the first test subject in just 63 days. [...]

How well do these vaccines work?

Phenomenally well, so far. The benchmark for FDA approval is an efficacy rate of 50 percent, roughly the average of what flu vaccines achieve. Early results for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines show about 95 percent efficacy, including for those over 65 -- a game-changing result. "It makes it now clear that vaccines will be our way out of this pandemic," says Kanta Subbarao, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Melbourne. 

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Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


How Social Security Reform Could Make a Popular Federal Program BetterNow is the time for Congress and the next administration to tackle Social Security's shortfalls and shortcomings by transitioning it to a smaller, better-targeted program.
 (Rachel Greszler Ilana Blumsack, 11/29/20, National Interest)

A new report from The Heritage Foundation shows how the next administration and the 117th Congress could modernize Social Security, increase benefits for lower-income workers, reduce Social Security taxes for everyone, and give individuals and families more control over their incomes and life circumstances. [...]

A logical first step is to increase Social Security's eligibility age and index it for life expectancy, since health improvements and less physically demanding jobs mean individuals can work longer than before.

The other commonsense reform, included in one of President Barack Obama's budget, is to apply a more accurate inflation index--the chained consumer price index--that doesn't inflate benefits over time.

Next are some modernizations to the spousal benefit (after all, Social Security began in an era when married women generally did not work outside the home), and eliminating features such as the retirement earnings test that suppresses work at older ages.

Finally, and most significantly, policymakers should return Social Security to its roots by gradually transitioning toward a flat, anti-poverty benefit structure. That would mean higher benefits for low-income workers, and lower benefits for middle- and upper-income earners.

According to The Heritage Foundation's Social Security model, the benefit of all those reforms would be a roughly 20% reduction in Social Security taxes, returning $1,600 per year to the median household, to save or spend based on their own unique needs.

Adding an option for workers to set aside a portion of their Social Security taxes in a personal savings account that they own, control, and could pass on to their heirs could further empower workers, and even reduce wealth inequality. 

We are all Third Way. One party or the other catches up. 

November 28, 2020

Posted by orrinj at 6:00 PM


Enter the Parler: Trump fans flock to platform where anti-Semitism has thrived (ALEX NEWHOUSE, 11/28/20, Times of Israel)

Since the 2020 US presidential election, Parler has caught on among right-wing politicians and "influencers" - people with large online followings - as a social media platform where they can share and promote ideas without worrying about the company blocking or flagging their posts for being dangerous or misleading. However, the website has become a haven for far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who are now interacting with the mainstream conservatives flocking to the platform. [...]

Parler has only two community guidelines: It does not knowingly allow criminal activity, and it does not allow spam or bots on its platform. The lack of guidelines on hate speech has allowed racism and anti-Semitism to flourish on Parler.

My research center has spent several years building an extensive encyclopedia of far-right terminology and slang, covering niche topics from the spectrum of white supremacist, neo-fascist and anti-state movements. We have studied the ways that far-right language evolves alongside content moderation efforts from mainstream platforms, and how slang and memes are often used to evade regulations.

We have monitored far-right communities on Parler since March and have found frequent use of both obvious white supremacist terms and more implicit, evasive memes and slang. For example, among other explicit white supremacist content, Parler allows usernames referencing the Atomwaffen Division's violently anti-Semitic slogan, posts spreading the theory that Jews are descended from Satan, and hashtags such as "HitlerWasRight."

In addition, it is easy to find the implicit bigotry and violence that eventually caused Facebook to ban movements like QAnon. For example, QAnon's version of the "blood libel" theory - the centuries-old conspiracy theory the Jewish people murder Christians and use their blood for rituals - has spread widely on the platform. Thousands of posts also use QAnon hashtags and promote the false claim that global elites are literally eating children.

Among the alternative platforms, Parler stands out because white supremacists, QAnon adherents and mainstream conservatives exist in close proximity.

It should really be called Pallor.

Posted by orrinj at 1:30 PM


Obama Book Explains How Birtherism Made Trump's Presidency (Murtaza Hussain, November 28 2020, The Intercept)

The overpowering insanity of the past five years has drowned out most memories of the "birther" episode that Obama recounts in his book. Looking back, the conspiracy theory and all that went along with it feels like a disturbing early warning sign of the terrifyingly unstable course that U.S. politics had begun to chart. Beginning around early 2011, Trump began publicly questioning Obama's place of birth, but he also went much further. Trump cast aspersions on Obama's intelligence, suggesting that his grades, concealed in unreleased college transcripts, must have been poor and that the erudite writing of his previous book, "Dreams From My Father," meant that a ghostwriter must have penned it.

This was ugly stuff. It was also popular, building Trump's news media profile and kickstarting his successful political career. The media at the time mostly didn't endorse Trump's theories. Yet, in a pattern that would disastrously repeat during his 2016 election campaign, outlets also couldn't get enough of his wacky sensationalism, providing wall-to-wall national publicity for the future president free of charge.

At the behest of his advisers, Obama writes in his memoir that he tried to downplay potentially divisive racial issues in his rhetoric and focus on unifying messages. As the Trump-orchestrated birther frenzy heated up during Obama's first term, the president reflected on a hostile reaction to his presidency that was no longer merely about politics. In some quarters of the American public, there was an "emotional, almost visceral" feeling, Obama writes, that "the natural order had been disrupted" by the election of a Black man like him to the presidency. [...]

This is a subtext of Obama's memoir: The story of how, starting with the birtherism episode, the embers of an unhinged majoritarian backlash to his presidency fanned into an inferno that consumed the Republican Party along with much of the broader conservative movement. A common undercurrent to conservative arguments about immigrants and minorities is that when they ask for accommodations or special recognition from society, they are inevitably eroding its intellectual and cultural standards. After watching many conservatives spend years defending intellectual train wrecks like Palin and Trump, it's difficult to take such claims seriously. With so many people having been driven out of their minds by a Black president, there is little reason to think that Trump's narrow defeat in the 2020 election is going to improve that condition.

Obama's faults as a president are there for us to criticize. He failed to rein in a rampaging national security state. There were ugly compromises with Wall Street and, more generally, a perceived coziness with a corrupt ruling establishment. In a way that he does not really confront in the book, those failures helped lay the groundwork for a populist backlash now coming from both the right and the left.

There was one thing Obama, to his credit, did understand very well: how a mix of celebrity, xenophobia, and paranoia might prove a winning formula for a hostile takeover of American democracy, perhaps even putting an end to the liberal order of which he himself is a product.

"What I knew was that he was a spectacle, and in the United States of America in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in a currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day," Obama writes. "Far from being ostracized for the conspiracies he'd peddled, he in fact had never been bigger."

You really need to go back to at least Ross Perot and his Nativist campaigns and what Donald saw of the success of Pat Buchanan and David Duke with Perot's Reform Party, but the clearest early signal for the UR should have been how the Right turned on W over immigration reform--which Mr. Obama tragically helped kill--and democratizing the Middle East. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:31 AM


Trump's GOP is Increasingly Racist and Authoritarian--and Here to Stay (RICHARD NORTH PATTERSON,  NOVEMBER 24, 2020, The Bulwark)

He comprehends his audience all too well. Take the poll released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) measuring the attitudes of "Fox News Republicans"--the 40 percent of party adherents who trust Fox as their primary source of TV news. The survey found that 91 percent oppose the Black Lives Matter movement; 90 percent believe that police killings of blacks are "isolated incidents"; and 58 think that whites are victimized by racial discrimination, compared to 36 percent who think blacks are.

Their animus toward immigration is equally strong. Substantial majorities believe that immigrants consume a disproportionate amount of governmental services, increase crime in local communities, and threaten our cultural and ethnic character. Support for Trump's wall is nearly unanimous (96 percent); two-thirds (66 percent) favor barring refugees from entering the United States; and a majority (53 percent) support separating children from their parents when a family enters the country without permission.

Another key subgroup of the GOP base, white evangelicals, harbors similar attitudes. The poll found that the majority adamantly disbelieve that the legacy of racial discrimination makes it difficult for African Americans to succeed. The head of the PRRI, Robert P. Jones, concludes that Trump arouses white Christians "not despite, but through appeals to white supremacy" based on evoking "powerful fears about the loss of White Christian dominance."

That sense of racial and cultural besiegement pervades the 73 percent of Fox News Republicans who, the survey found, believe that white Christians suffer from "a lot" of societal discrimination--more than double the number who say that blacks do. This religious persecution complex explains the otherwise mystifying ability of evangelicals to conjure a "war on Christmas" from the greeting "happy holidays"--simply because some Americans choose to acknowledge our divergent beliefs.

In sum, the GOP is now the party of white identity. In 2016, Vox reports, Trump carried whites by 54 to 39 percent; in 2020, by 57 to 42 percent (per the raw exit polls). Whites are the only racial group whose majority supported Trump; in both elections, Trump lost overwhelmingly among nonwhite Americans. It has long been apparent that the party cannot indefinitely survive the changing demographics which are making us a multiracial democracy--and which engender such resentment in its electoral base.

That fear of displacement helps explain the profound emotional connection between Trump and Republican voters. Their loyalty is not to the political philosophy traditionally embraced by the GOP, but a visceral sense of racial, religious, and cultural identity--and the need to preserve it--which is instinctively authoritarian and anti-democratic.

It's still a different party at the state level, where folks want to be well-governed.  But that makes it all the more critical that the 2024 nominee be a governor.

Posted by orrinj at 10:12 AM


Sadr calls on supporters to attain majority in next Iraq parliament (MEMO, November 28, 2020)

The Shia leader expressed: "We are not hungry for power, but we are committed to defending Iraq through a Sadrist majority in parliament, and we are ready to sacrifice for the sake of establishing reforms. We want to win the position of prime minister in order to protect Iraq from corrupt parties."

"We will defend the country peacefully, away from violence and killing, because we are committed to protecting Iraq from corruption, and we are convinced that the reform project is our responsibility," he added.

Posted by orrinj at 10:09 AM


What Now for Trump's Border Wall? (ZACHARY EVANS, November 28, 2020, National Review)

The story of the border wall renovation reads rather like Trump's efforts in the 1990s to develop a real-estate tract on Manhattan's Upper West Side. What Trump proposed as "Television City," a gleaming development by the Hudson River that would include residential buildings as well as a massive skyscraper, foundered on bureaucratic inertia, fierce opposition by residents, and Trump's own financial problems. Trump sold the real estate parcel to investors from Hong Kong, and the resulting development, Riverside South, is an unremarkable residential complex.

Similarly, the fantastical visions of a wall running along the entire southern border that Trump sold on the 2016 campaign trail have not come to fruition. 

Just another instance of the Deep State winning. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:04 AM


Posted by orrinj at 10:00 AM


US is 'rounding the corner into a calamity,' expert says, with Covid-19 deaths projected to double soon (Christina Maxouris, 11/28/20, CNN)

As Thanksgiving week draws to an end, more experts are warning the Covid-19 pandemic will likely get much worse in the coming weeks before a possible vaccine begins to offer some relief.

More than 205,000 new cases were reported Friday -- which likely consists of both Thursday and Friday reports in some cases, as at least 20 states did not report Covid-19 numbers on Thanksgiving.

The US has now reported more than 100,000 infections every day for 25 consecutive days, with a daily average of more than 166,000 across the last week -- almost 2.5 times higher than the summer's peak counts in July.

The number of Covid-19 patients in US hospitals is just off record levels: more than 89,800 on Friday, only a few hundred lower than the peak set a day earlier, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

And daily Covid-19 deaths in the US have been heading up. The daily average across seven days was 1,477 on Friday. But more than 2,100 deaths were reported on each of the two days prior to Thanksgiving, the first time that level was crossed on consecutive days since late April.

Trumpism isn't done slaughtering our fellow Americans yet...

Posted by orrinj at 9:56 AM


'Republicans Remain Opposed to Any Policies That Would Reduce Fossil-Fuel Use' (Jonathan Chait, 11/28/20, New York)

For more than a decade, the GOP has stood alone among major right-of-center parties in industrialized democracies worldwide in its refusal to endorse climate science. But during the Trump era, the party's rhetorical emphasis shifted. The major Republican point of agreement is now to insist on fossil-fuel use as an inherent good.

The conservative Washington Examiner reported not long ago on what kinds of climate policies, if any, Republicans may support under a Biden administration. Most of the Republicans queried for the story implicitly agree that climate change is a problem but insist that big government is not the solution. Their buzzword is innovation. A spokesperson for Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, explains, "He believes free-market innovation, not government taxation or regulation, is the best way to address climate change." Representative Tom Reed says, "You lead with innovation." And the Chamber of Commerce likewise asserts, "It's OK to have ambitions, goals, and targets, but our focus is on innovation and technology."

"Innovation" sounds like promising grounds for cooperation. The green-energy sector has seen an explosion of innovation over the past decade, with the price of solar energy, batteries, and other green technology plummeting rapidly.

But what kind of innovation do Republicans want? Halfway through the Examiner story, we arrive at the bottom line: "Republicans remain opposed to any policies that would reduce fossil-fuel use."

This is how negative partisanship works: there is no thought involved (a feature of fanaticism); it's just an emotional reaction to the "others" supporting renewable energy.  

Posted by orrinj at 9:41 AM


Bahrain is yet to normalise ties with its own people  (Omar AhmedOmar AhmedNovember 28, 2020, MEMO)

If the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition's war on Yemen was known as "the forgotten war", the 2011 anti-government protests in Bahrain soon became "the forgotten uprising". [...]

Needless to say, Bahrain's uprising was short-lived due to the military intervention of Saudi forces, who assisted the Bahraini government in brutally cracking down on the popular and peaceful protests.

The mass demonstrations by the largely Shia majority population against the iron rule of the Al-Khalifa family (who are from the archipelago's Sunni minority and have been ruling since the 18th century, with origins said to be from what is today's central Saudi Arabia) were inspired by the events in the region nine years ago. However, they are rooted in the country's referendum ten years prior, whereby citizens voted in favour of the National Action Charter which was supposed to usher in democratic reforms, and did not materialise into any lasting reconciliation between the state and the people.

Instead, human rights abuses and state repression intensified as many dissidents and opposition leaders were imprisoned, executed or faced exile under stringent counterterrorism measures. Blame was directed at Iran for being behind the civil unrest, a charge which Tehran and the local opposition denied. Furthermore, the country's main oppositionist party Al-Wefaq was dissolved in 2016, considered to be one of the biggest setbacks for Bahraini civil society. Alarmingly, hundreds of Bahraini nationals have had their citizenship revoked by the state, rendering most of them stateless.

Normalization is simply an alliance for the suppression of Muslim democracy. 

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