Archive for January, 2020

The new Chinese surveillance state

January 29, 2020

Shoshana Zuboff warned us of the perils of American surveillance capitalism, and Edward Snowden of the American surveillance state.  But China’s ruler, Xi Jinping, is creating a surveillance system that leaves anything else far behind.

I recently read WE HAVE BEEN HARMONIZED: Life in China’s Surveillance State, by a German journalist named Kai Strittmatter, about how the components of the new system are now being put into place in different parts of China.

The components are:

A unified Internet service that combines the functions of a smart phone and a credit card, and allows for tracking of all electronic communication and all financial transactions.

A video surveillance system using facial recognition software that allows for tracking of all public behavior.

An artificial intelligence system capable of integrating all this information.

Algorithms that give people a “credit score” based on the government’s approval or disapproval of their behavior.

This is something like the two-way television sets in George Orwell’s 1984 and something like the East German Stasi’s real-life eavesdropping and surveillance system.

Both the fictional and the real system were limited by the human inability to keep track of everything all of the time.  The Chinese government’s hope is that advanced computer technology can overcome these limits.

At the same time, China is still an old-fashioned Soviet-style police state.  Dissidents are treated the same as in the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  The new controls do not replace the old.  Instead they are layered on top of them.

China, according to Strittmatter, is a virtually cashless society.  Payments are made through the WeChat app on the TenCent smartphone service or the Alipay app on the Alibaba service.  All transactions and all calls are monitored.

Certain words and phrases are forbidden in electronic communication. including “I do not agree,” “my emperor,” “Animal Farm” and “Winnie the Pooh”—the latter a nickname for the tall, stout, benign-looking  General Secretary Xi.

A law imposes three years in prison for anyone who posts a harmful rumor on the Internet, if it is shared 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.  There was a wave of arrests in 2013 for spreading false rumors.

Strittmatter saw a video surveillance system at an intersection that showed the faces of jaywalks on a huge screen, together with their names, home addresses and ID numbers.  These systems do not exist everywhere in China, but they are examples of what might be.

He saw a video surveillance system in a collage classroom that monitored whether students were paying attention.  It also recorded their facial expressions, which were fed into a system that supposedly could evaluate their feelings and emotions.

Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, a leading Chinese search engine company, told Strittmatter that his goal was to insert artificial intelligence into every aspect of human life.

The Chinese government plans to use this data to set up a “social credit” system which will give each Chinese person a score for “social truthworthiness.”  Strittmatter saw such a system being tested in the small city of Rongcheng.

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Impeachment and the undeclared war with Russia

January 28, 2020

Historian Stephen F. Cohen pointed out in an interview how Rep. Adam Schiff frames the Trump impeachment in terms of the undeclared war with Russia in Ukraine.

President Trump is accused of pausing military aid to Ukraine for personal, political reasons.  Schiff said that undermines the necessary war against Russia “over there” so “we won’t have to fight them over here.”

In fact, what’s going on in Ukraine is a civil war.  An anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalist government, with Nazis in the governing coalition, came to power in a U.S.-backed coup.

Vladimir Putin seized control of Crimea, location of Russia’s main naval base in the region.  Russian-speaking areas in western Ukraine attempted to secede, provoking a civil war.  Putin has helped his fellow Russians defend themselves, but not march on Kiev.

The best solution would be some sort of compromise that would allow residents of the Donblass and Luhansk regions the minimum amount of autonomy and security they need to feel safe.

The best contribution the U.S. government could make is to join with Germany and France to help mediate between Russia and Ukraine.  But I know of no Republican or Democratic leader who supports this.

Of all possible criticisms of Donald Trump, the idea that he is insufficiently warlike makes the least sense.

Trump has canceled an important nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and seems ready to cancel the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (StART) when it come up for renewal in 2021.  This increases the danger of a possible nuclear war with Russia, a much more real possibility than “having to fight them over here.”

The main differences between the Democratic and Republican leaderships is that the one prioritizes military confrontation with Russia and the other prioritizes military confrontation with Iran.

I recommend watching the interview of Prof. Cohen by Aaron Maté on the video above.

Ten years a blogger

January 25, 2020

As of today, I’ve been blogging for 10 years.

Blogging satisfies my creative need to write, and my ego need to have someone read what I write.  I’ve become acquainted with interesting people, including some who live in foreign countries and some whose views are very different from my own.

I’m an 83-year-old retired newspaper reporter, living in Rochester, N.Y., with time on my hands and no reason to fear economic consequences of displeasing anybody with what I write.  I’m content with my fortunate and pleasant life while pessimistic about the fate of my nation and the world in general.

I hadn’t realized, until my friend David Damico alerted me to the possibility, that web hosting for blogs was free (although I now pay WordPress a fee for premium service) and that blogging does not require any special knowledge of computer technology

Phil Ebersole

From Jan. 25, 2010 on, I have made 5,014 posts, consisting of about 2 million words.  The posts have drawn more than 1.7 million views in slightly over 1 million individual daily visits.  They’ve received 4,650 comments and 9,405 “likes.”

My blog has 1,320 followers, who are notified every time I post something, although the average number of daily visits is far less.  There are 252 individual posts with comment followers, who are notified every time there is a comment on that particular post.

My previous retirement creative outlet was sending out book reviews by e-mail.  I started my book notes in 2004 by sending a friend brief notes on books I’d read during the previous month.  Over time my notes expanded to lengthy review-essays, and my e-mail list to more than 100 recipients.  I now post all my book notes on my blog while continuing to distribute them by e-mail.

My great fault as a blogger was the same as my fault as a newspaper reporter.  I have been too prolific.  I have written many forgettable things and some that I am embarrassed to remember.  The writings I am proud of are submerged in a vast sea of mediocrity.

On breaking news, I often made a post based on incomplete knowledge, and I had to keep making additional posts to clarify, supplement or correct what I’d written originally.

The posts that I think have lasting value are all about more general topics, some political, some not.  Of course blog posts are impermanent by their very nature, so maybe I shouldn’t worry about lasting value.

As I said, I’m 83.   I’m slowing down mentally as well as physically.  My memory is worsening, and so is my “executive function”—the ability to keep a number of different things in mind at the same time.  I spent too much time with the computer screen and my books and not enough with the practical issues of life.

My short-term goal is fewer but better posts.  I’ll try to post something worth reading every Wednesday.  If I can’t write something, I try to find an interesting video or chart, or a worthwhile link.  This isn’t a commitment—just how I see things now.

I don’t expect to be able to continue posting 10 more years, but who knows?  I’ve already lived longer than I expected.

If you find my posts of interest, I am pleased.  The best way to show your appreciation is to share your own thoughts, especially if you see things differently from me.  Or comment on this post about what you like or don’t like about my approach to blogging overall.

Why does Clinton hate Sanders so much?

January 24, 2020

Hillary Clinton & Bernie Sanders.  Source: Associated Press

Why is Hillary Clinton still so angry at Bernie Sanders?

I think it is because his criticisms, and his possible victory, call in question the meaning of her career.

She has spent her whole political life ingratiating herself with the rich and powerful.  Her justification is that this is the price of getting into a position in which it is possible to do good—the limited good that is politically possible.

Clinton has a record of supporting regime change wars, pro-corporate trade treaties and bank bailouts, for which she has been richly rewarded in campaign contributions and six-figure speaking fees.

When I bring this up, her supporters say she “had to” do these things.  Otherwise, they say, she would have been shut off from political power, and she would not have been able to be a champion for children and working mothers.

But if Sanders wins, it will show that you don’t “have to” have the patronage of the rich and powerful in order to win.

Clinton has been the subject of scurrilous and false attacks all her political life—mostly depicting her as some sort of dangerous or extreme radical, which is the opposite of the truth.  But Sanders’ criticisms are the ones that sting, because they are based on fact.

A Sanders victory would not break Clinton’s rice bowl.  She will continue to be a rich celebrity until her dying day.  All it would do is show that she was on the wrong side of history.

LINKS

Hillary Clinton in Full: A Fiery New Documentary, Trump Regrets and Harsh Words for Bernie by Lacey Rose for Hollywood Reporter.

We Regret to Inform You That Hillary Clinton Is at It Again by Luke Savage for Jacobin magazine.

Why They Hate Bernie’s Supporters by Carl Bejier [Added 1/25/2020]

The corruption case against Joe Biden

January 22, 2020

Zephyr Teachout, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, wrote an article accusing Joe Biden of corruption.  Sanders disavowed it and apologized. Biden accepted Sanders’ apology.

But I think Teachout was right. She pointed to three things—

Joe Biden

First, Biden’s support for finance over working-class Americans.  His career was bankrolled by the credit card industry. He delivered for it by spearheading a bankruptcy bill that made it harder for Americans to reduce their debts and helped cause the financial crisis.  He not only authored and voted for that bill, he split with Barack Obama and led the battle to vote down Democratic amendments.

His explanations for carrying water for the credit card industry have changed over time.  They have never rung true.

The simplest explanation is the most likely: he did it for his donors.  At a fundraiser last year, Biden promised his Wall Street donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” for them if he became president.  Now the financial world is raising huge money for his campaign.  It clearly thinks he’s going to be its friend if elected.  Most Americans, who get ripped off by the financial sector on a daily basis, aren’t looking for a candidate who has made their life harder.

Second, healthcare. On 25 April, the day he announced his campaign, Biden went straight to a fundraiser co-hosted by the chief executive of a major health insurance corporation.  He refuses to sign a pledge to reject money from insurance and pharma execs and continues to raise money from healthcare industry donors.  His campaign is being bankrolled by a super PAC run by healthcare lobbyists.

What did all these donors get?  A healthcare proposal that preserves the power of the insurance industry and leaves 10 million Americans uninsured.

Third, climate change. Biden signed a pledge not to take money from the fossil fuel industry, then broke his promise. Right after a CNN town hall on climate change, he held a fundraiser hosted by the founder of a fossil fuel conglomerate. He is pushing climate policy that has gotten dismal reviews from several leading environmental groups.

There are plenty of other examples that raise questions, like housing and social security. Big real estate moguls are playing a major role in Biden’s campaign. Unlike his rivals, he has no comprehensive housing plan. When he pushed for cuts to Social Security, was he serving donors or his constituents?

But then President Donald Trump is 100 times worse.  Trump’s whole administration is one giant conflict of interest.  Call this the “lesser evil” defense.

A Biden defender could point out that there’s no reason to think that Biden has broken any laws. And a defender could argue that there’s also no reason to think Biden is any more dependent on corporate interests than the average Senator.  Call this the “average evil” defense.

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The other side of Qasem Soleimani

January 20, 2020

Qasem Soleimani

I knew little about Qasem Soleimani prior to his assassination by drone.  My original reading about him left me with a highly favorable opinion of the man as a military leader.

The other day I read articles by Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, two seasoned Middle East correspondents, on Soleimani’s ruthless side.  I recommend reading their articles for a more balanced view of his record and insight into the complexities of Middle East policies.

LINKS

Was Qassem Soleimani a monstrous kingmaker or simply an enabler? The truth is as murky as Tudor history by Robert Fisk for The Independent.

Blundering Into War: Patrick Cockburn on what Trump doesn’t know about Iran for the London Review of Books.

The search for a national conservatism

January 20, 2020

I’ve long said that the Republican Party rests on three pillars—the neocons, who believe there is a military solution to every problem; the theo-cons, who believe there is a Biblical solution to every problem; and the libertarians, who believe there is a free-market solution to every problem.

This is an exaggeration, but an exaggeration of reality that’s only a little bit unfair. Many conservatives recognize their problem, and that was the theme of the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., last July.

A German journalist named Thomas Meaney, reported on the conference for Harper’s magazine.  He said His report shows the unifying theme of the new conservatism is patriotism and national unity.  Instead of globalization, the new conservatives want an industrial policy to rebuild American manufacturing strength.

Meaney was moved to ask—

What if Trump had dialed down the white nationalism after taking the White House and, instead of betraying nearly every word of his campaign rhetoric of economic populism, had ruthlessly enacted populist policies, passing gargantuan infrastructure bills, shredding NAFTA instead of remodeling it, giving a tax cut to the lower middle class instead of the rich, and conspiring to raise the wages of American workers?

It doesn’t take much to imagine how that would play against a Democratic challenger with McKinsey or Harvard Law School imprinted on his or her forehead.

There seemed to be two futures for Trumpism as a distinctive strain of populism: one in which the last reserves of white identity politics were mined until the cave collapsed and one in which the coalition was expanded to include working Americans, enlisting blacks and Hispanics and Asians in the cause of conquering the condescending citadels of Wokistan.

Was it predestined that Trump would choose the former?

Source: Harper’s Magazine

My answer is, yes, it was predestined that Trump make the choices he did.  Character is destiny, and Trump has the character of a showman and confidence man.  His business record shows this.

He is smart enough to give the common people the appearance of respect, while serving the interests of Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.

There is nothing in his record to indicate that he has either the interest or sense of purpose to do anything more than that.

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For what it’s worth…

January 18, 2020

The problem with Gene Sharp’s nonviolence

January 17, 2020

Gene Sharp

The late Gene Sharp was a political scientists who aspired to be the Clausewitz of nonviolence.

He said you didn’t have to be a pacifist, although he was one, to embrace nonviolence.

He claimed that nonviolent struggle was a tactic, the same as armed struggle, and often a superior tactic.

His great insight was that the power of oppressors comes from being able to compel the obedience of the oppressed.  Once the oppressed lose their fear, the oppressor has no more power.

Of course that only applies to an oppressor who wants to enslave you.  If his aim is to kill you, things are different.  Nonviolence worked for the Danes against Hitler.  It wouldn’t have worked for the Jews.

One great advantage of nonviolence is that its leaders have to inspire voluntary followers.  The leaders don’t have the option, unlike, say, Michael Collins’ IRA or the Vietnamese NLF, of killing members of their constituencies to keep them in line.

I was and still am favorably impressed with Gene Sharp, but I saw him in a new light after reading an article by one Marcie Smith about how the CIA weaponized Sharp’s tactics to take down anti-U.S. governments.

She wrote a second part, which is newly published, about the shortcomings of Sharp’s philosophy as a way of bringing about social change in the USA.

Both articles are long, but important if you are interested in nonviolent action or social change.  They report on a lot of history I hadn’t known.

Afterthought.  I am not a pacifist. I did not object to doing military service.  I believe there is such a thing as a right of revolution.  I am a citizen of a country that was founded on that principle.   But I think revolutionary violence is a last resort, not a first resort or a default choice.

Nonviolent tactics need not have a religious or pacifist basis.  The late Saul Alinsky was a skilled practitioner of nonviolent struggle.

LINKS

Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence (Part One)  by Marcie Smith for nonsite.org.

Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence (Part Two) by Marcie Smith for nonsite.org.

Bloodless Lies by Lorenzo Raymond for The New Inquiry.

The Sanders-Warren woman electability flap

January 16, 2020

It’s not believable that Bernie Sanders ever said that a woman couldn’t be elected President.  The only explanations for Elizabeth Warren saying otherwise are (1) she misunderstood what he said, (2) she misremembered what he said or (3) she is lying.

LINKS

The Credibility Gap: It’s difficult to believe Elizabeth Warren’s claim that Bernie Sanders thinks a woman can’t win by Nathan J. Robinson.

CNN Debate Performance Was Villainous and Shameful by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Thoughts on Warren, Sanders and the Convention by Thomas Neuberger for Down With Tyranny! [Added 1/21/2020]

The whole GRU phishing story seems fishy

January 16, 2020

Area 1 Security, a California-based cybersecurity firm, claimed that Russian military intelligence successfully hacked Burisma Holdings for dirt on Joe Biden’s son.

The GRU allegedly used what’s known as phishing—tricking people into revealing passwords and other information needed to penetrate a secure computer system.

Area 1 Security claims to have the capability of a little junior National Security Agency.  Here’s what the New York Times reported.

“The attacks were successful,” said Oren Falkowitz, a co-founder of Area 1, who previously served at the National Security Agency.  Mr. Falkowitz’s firm maintains a network of sensors on web servers around the globe — many known to be used by state-sponsored hackers — which gives the firm a front-row seat to phishing attacks, and allows them to block attacks on their customers.

Source: The New York Times.

But the company’s services are limited to giving really, really good protection against phishing attacks.  I would not think a company with such superpowers would limit itself like this.

Interestingly, in the original announcement and press release, Area 1 did not claim to know that Burisma Holdings security had been breached—only that the GRU was attempting to penetrate its security through phishing.

That is probably true.  The GRU is no doubt trying to penetrate all the major corporations and government agencies in Ukraine.  But why wouldn’t Area 1 put the stronger claim in its press release?  It makes the claim that the GRU was successful seem like an afterthought..

I think the purpose of the announcement is to make Burisma Holdings, the corrupt former employer of Joe Biden’s son Hunter, off limits for discussion in the coming election campaign.  Anybody who raises this issue will be called a Russian asset.

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Scott Ritter on the Iranian crisis

January 12, 2020

‘You shall love your crooked neighbor…’

January 11, 2020

W.H. Auden

O look, look in the mirror

O look in your distress

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless

O stand, stand by the window

As the tears scald and start

You shall love your crooked neighbor

With your crooked heart.

==W.H. Auden (1940)

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How U.S. foreign policy is like 1930s Germany’s

January 10, 2020

I am careful about using the words “fascist,” “Nazi” and “Hitler,” and I do not think that what’s left of American freedom and democracy is equivalent to Nazi Germany’s totalitarianism.

But there are good reasons why other nations view the USA as the same kind of threat to international order as the Axis powers posed in the 1930s.  We Americans need to try to see ourselves as others see us.

I recommend you click on the links below.

LINKS 

On Rogues and Rogue States: Old, New and Improved by Fred Reed.

Reclaiming Your Inner Fascist by C.J. Hopkins for Consent Factory.

The normalization of assassination

January 10, 2020

Most of President Trump’s critics, at home and abroad, saw nothing morally wrong with  the killing of Iranian General Qasim Soleimani.  They criticized the murder on pragmatic and procedural grounds.

They said that while Soleimani was a bad person who deserved to die, killing him at this particular time until these particular circumstances without proper consultation would have dire consequences.

I don’t claim to know what happens next, but right now it looks as if the consequences might not be all that dire.  If so, the critics seem like a bunch of nervous nellies—provided you see nothing wrong with assassination in and of itself.

President Trump

Iranians fired missiles with pinpoint accuracy at two U.S. military bases, causing damage but not casualties.  Their action was a demonstration of American vulnerability and Iranian restraint.

It’s worth remembering that the United States simulated an invasion of Iran in the Millennial Challenge 2002 war games, and lost badly.  An all-out shooting war is not in the interest of either side.

Iranian and Hezbollah leaders said they will take revenge in the form of stepped-up attacks on U.S. troops.  They said they will spare American civilians.

I think Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper regard increased American military casualties as an acceptable loss.  If they cared about the lives of American troops, they would have wound down the futile Afghanistan campaign years ago.

One danger is that Trump, Pompeo and Esper will regard Iranian restraint as weakness.  Pompeo has said he hopes increased economic pressure will make the current Iranian government fall.

That’s entirely possible, but the replacement Iranian government would be more fiercely anti-American and less restrained than the current one.

For now, both sides have stepped back from the brink.  What many feared did not happen.  Trump’s procedural sins do not seem all that bad.

But a precedent has been set – that the assassination of foreign leaders is one more foreign policy option that has to be considered.  Killing leaders of foreign governments may be expedient or inexpedient, but we think about it on a case by case basis.

Here are some of that bad consequences that can flow from the new ethical normal.

  1. Our government, having decided that it is all right to commit criminal acts against foreigners, would decide it is all right to commit criminal acts against citizens.
  2. Democratic foreign governments would decide the United States is a rogue state and unite to stop it.  This would more likely come in the form of economic boycotts, divestment and sanctions rather than a military alliance..
  3. Authoritarian foreign governments would take the United States as a role model.  Assassinations would become commonplace, and some of them would be of American leaders..

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Soleimani was one of history’s great commanders

January 8, 2020

I had only vaguely heard of General Qasem Soleimani prior to his murder last week.  But from what I’ve learned about his career, I think he will go down in history as one of the great commanders.

Qasem Soleimani

He came up from the ranks.  Even his enemies acknowledge that he was motivated by patriotism and not personal gain.

He won a long series of victories against enemies with greater firepower and resources than his.

He deserves the chief credit for the defeat of the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) and Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.

He was not a terrorist.  He waged war against military forces, not unarmed civilians.

He led troops in foreign countries who welcomed his leadership.  He was not the kind of guerrilla leader who had to kill defectors and dissenters to keep his own side in line.

His enemies were unable to capture or kill him when he was in the field.  They had to resort to a treacherous assassination when he was on a peace mission.

I think his campaigns will be studied by military historians and strategists in years to come, the same way they study the campaigns of Stonewall Jackson.

His murder made him a martyr and enhanced his reputation.  It was his final contribution to his cause.

Added 1/20/2020.

I have added articles by Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, two seasoned Middle East correspondents, on Soleimani’s ruthless side.  I recommend reading their articles for a more balanced view of his record and insight into the complexities of Middle East policies.

LINKS

The Shadow Commander by Dexter Filkins for The New Yorker (2013)

Who Was Iranian Maj. General Qassem Soleimani? by Nassir Karimi and Jon Gambrell for Huffington Post.

Instead of Assassinating Soleimani, Americans Should Have Built Him a Monument by Marko Marjanovic for Anti-Empire.

Millions Come into Streets for Slain Gen. Soleimani in Biggest Rallies in Iran’s History (And, No, They Weren’t Coerced) by Juan Cole for Informed Comment.

Iran’s Qasem Soleimani Was a Great General, One of the Very Few Our Era Will See by Gary Brecher, the War Nerd.

Was Qassem Soleimani a monstrous kingmaker or simply an enabler? The truth is as murky as Tudor history by Robert Fisk for The Independent.  [Added 1/20/2020]

Blundering Into War: Patrick Cockburn on what Trump doesn’t know about Iranfor the London Review of Books.  [Added 1/20/2020]

The killing of General Soleimani was a crime

January 6, 2020

The killing of General Qasem Soleimani was more than a blunder.  It was a crime.

He was invited to Baghdad by the Iraqi government, a U.S. ally, with the knowledge of the U.S. government, to use his good offices to help negotiate peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

He came without protection because he thought he was on a mission of peace.  His killing was an act of treachery as well as murder.

Qasem Soleimani

We Americans find it hard to accept the criminal nature of this act because we have been incrementally brought to believe that assassination, along with waging undeclared wars, is normal behavior.

Most of President Trump’s critics say that although Soleimani was an evildoer who deserved to die, his killing was inadvisable under the circumstances, or that Trump should have consulted with Congress before he acted.

What was his crime?  Soleimani’s Quds force organized and led resistance in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen against foreign invaders – Israelis, Americans, Saudis and Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda terrorists.

He acted on behalf of Iranian interests and against U.S. (perceived) interests and was therefore an enemy.  But there was a time when honorable soldiers could respect a brave and capable enemy.

Northern generals in the U.S. Civil War respected Robert E. Lee.  Allied generals in World War Two respected Erwin Rommel.   They wouldn’t have encouraged Lee or Rommel to come to neutral ground and then killed them from ambush.

President Trump has led the United States to the brink of war with Iran.  But even if war is avoided, it is still an established principle that a President can order invasions and killings on his own personal judgment, and so more murders of foreign leaders are nearly inevitable.

What has happened, will continue to happen, unless we the people put a stop to it.  We have not seen the worst.

LINKS

Iraqi PM reveals Soleimani was on a peace mission when assassinated, exploding Trump’s lie of “imminent attacks,” by Max Blumenthal for The Gray Zone.

Soleimani’s assassination and the muddled moralism behind it by Robert Wright for Nonzero.

How to Avoid Swallowing War Propaganda by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs.

‘…something in everyone that waits and listens’

January 5, 2020

The Rev. Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was a Christian theologian, an admirer of Gandhi and a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.