In this episode of The Ossington Circle, I interview New York-based labor activist and graduate student Luke Elliott-Negri. We discuss the role and importance of organizing, of third parties, of local electoral work, and of labor unions in surviving the new Trump Era.
Americas (South & North)
I have been surprised by two electoral events in a few months: Trump’s election victory and the Colombian referendum on the peace accords. Both votes were very close, had low participation rates, and were expected to go the other way. If I were a closer watcher of British politics, I would no doubt have been equally surprised by the Brexit vote. In trying to learn from my own errors of analysis, I have come to these conclusions.
1. This is a world of bubbles.
One important and constant argument made on the left is for the need for independent media. The reason we believe in devoting resources and energy to creating and supporting independent media is to try to reduce our dependence for information on analysis on corporate media sources. Whether those sources support Democrats or Republicans, whether they are liberal or conservative, their corporate values and their business models trump the political considerations of their journalists or editors.
We used to focus our analysis of media bias against the corporate, agenda-setting media and especially their flagship newspaper, namely the New York Times. The NYT would receive the most criticism, not because it was the most biased, because there have always been many outlets to the right of it, but because it had the most influence. With the decline of newspapers and more and more people getting their information from different media – TV, social media, other web sources – audiences fragmented.
That fragmentation process is now complete. The agenda-setting media set agendas for only one bloc of Americans. Another bloc, the one that just elected Trump, uses a different set of media – one with its own set of assumptions and biases.
So my daily media routine goes like this: I use a carefully curated Twitter feed, following journalists and writers that I like and trust. When I have analyzed what I end up reading via Twitter, it seemed to me that I was clicking a lot of links to The Guardian, The Intercept, and Al Jazeera.
US invaded and occupied Haiti 101 years ago today, and remained there for nineteen years. Accomplishments of the occupation include raiding the Haitian National Bank, re-instituting forced labor, establishing the hated National Guard, and getting a 25-year contract for the US corporation, United Fruit.
There was a pretext for the invasion – the assassination of Haiti's president in 1915. But to understand the event, which has lessons to draw from a century later, it is necessary to look more closely at the invader than the invaded.
In 2016, the United States is living through a presidential campaign with a candidate willing to exploit racism and pander to anti-immigrant sentiment. Police are killing black people in cities across the US. Having drawn down troop levels in its two big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US still runs air srikes and drone strikes in the region, and covert actions all over the world. The US is still the determining voice in Haiti's politics and economy. In other words, one hundred and one years after its invasion of Haiti, the US retains two features of what it was then: violent racial inequality, and empire.
The US presidential candidates can be looked at from the perspective of Haiti. One candidate has an extensive record there. The other has some historical parallels.
The Clintons have treated Haiti as a family business. In 2010, after an earthquake devastated the country, the Clinton Foundation was among the horde of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that stepped up their role in the still unfinished rebuilding phase. Haiti's social sector had already been taken over by NGOs and its streets, since the 2004 coup and occupation, were patrolled by United Nations troops. The Clinton Foundation received pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid to rebuild Haiti. The crown jewel of the Foundation's work: the disappointing Caracol Industrial Park, opened in 2012, which promised and failed to expand Haiti's low-wage garment-processing industry, long a source of foreign profits and little internal development.
On June 23, at the end of a four-year long peace negotiation, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government signed a ceasefire agreement in Havana. In cities around Colombia, people left signs on the streets reading: “R.I.P. Civil War, 1964-2016”. There are good reasons to date the civil war's origin even further back, all the way to 1948. In either case, this is a historic moment, the signing of a peace to end one of the world's longest-running conflicts.
Like many other guerrilla movements in Latin America the FARC took up arms in part to defend peasant lands from powerful interests: local big landowners, the state, and multinational corporations, and their military and paramilitary forces. The peace agreement they signed contains a mandate for land reform, as well as for restitution for the victims of the conflict, a transitional justice process for guerrillas who committed crimes during the war, and a process for the guerrillas to enter Colombia's electoral political system.
The process isn't finished: the final agreement will be signed in Colombia. It will have to be approved in a referendum, and legislation to support it will have to be passed in the Colombian Congress. But the FARC said on June 28, in a sign of how far the process has advanced, that they would not return to war even if the people rejected the accords. There are also other cautions, caveats, and limitations to the process to dampen the understandable celebration.
We have been here before. There have been two peace processes that took years, became very popular in Colombia, and ultimately failed. In the 1980s, a peace process saw thousands of revolutionaries associated with the guerrillas enter politics through the Patriotic Union (UP) party only to be killed by state-backed paramilitaries. From 1999-2002, peace talks ran at Caguan, while the Colombian government built up its military through Plan Colombia. They ended with the Colombian Army driving the FARC out of their safe zone, and another decade and a half of massacres, assassinations, and kidnappings.
While it is the largest, the FARC isn't the only guerrilla group in Colombia. The National Liberation Army (ELN) is also in a peace process with the government, but it is in relatively early stages. Until that process is also concluded, the armed conflict cannot be declared over.
In this sixth episode of The Ossington Circle, I interview John Gibler, author of An Oral History of Infamy: The Attacks on the Students of Ayotzinapa, and Manuel Rozental of Pueblos en Camino. We discuss the disappearance of the 43 students in Mexico, the changes in Mexico over recent years, and the idea of "political listening".
In this fifth episode of The Ossington Circle, I interview Glen Coulthard, author of Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. We discuss the revolutionary ideas of Frantz Fanon, the portability of revolutionary ideas, the indigenous resurgence, and the question of solidarity.
The Ossington Circle Podcast Episode 4 - Students for Justice in Palestine with Nora Barrows-Friedman
In this episode of The Ossington Circle, I interview Nora Barrows-Friedman, author of In Our Power: U.S. students organize for justice in Palestine. We discuss the U.S. campus movement for justice in Palestine, the challenges it faces, and the remarkable students and advocates that make it up.
In this episode of The Ossington Circle, I interview Tom Slee, author of What's Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, about the downside of sharing economy companies like Uber and AirBnB, and what is actually happening as they reshape cities in the name of sharing.
Vaccinations and the war on science: Donald Trump's championing of the "anti-vaxer" cause takes advantage of scientific illiteracy
Science is a massive, ongoing human undertaking. It is a creative endeavour: the greatest scientific discoveries have involved wild guesses and hypotheses. But it also depends on rigor, self-criticism, and self-correction. The wild guesses must be tested against evidence. Science is the most dynamic of endeavours: the accepted claims of today may be overturned tomorrow. Ambitious scientists dream of changing our understanding of the world.
So how can someone make decisions that rely on science? If science is always changing, if claims are being tested and overturned, if tomorrow's discovery could change our whole way of looking at things, why should we believe anything scientists say today? How can a creative and dynamic endeavour become a source of legitimate authority to be followed? Most of us are not going to collect and analyze atmospheric data to test whether burning fossil fuels causes climate change, but we have to decide whether to press for reduced emissions based on what scientists are saying.
This decision of the ordinary person to trust scientific authority is made even more difficult because scientific authority can be abused, and has been abused in the past. Take scientific authority in the area of mental illness. The manual of mental illness produced by the American Psychiatric Association is the famous DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We are currently (as of 2013) on the DSM-V. Prior to a change made in the DSM-II in 1973, 'homosexuality' was defined as a mental illness. Before the DSMs, in the 19th century, an American physician defined 'drapetomania': a mental illness that caused African-American slaves to try to escape. Diagnoses of 'hysteria', 'frigidity', and many others were used to control women since the 19th century. Psychologist Bruce Levine has argued that diagnoses of ADHD and ODD are similar tools that “psychopathologize” and “medicate” people who are “natural anti-authoritarians”, “before they achieve political consciousness of society's most oppressive authorities.”
The Butterfly Prison
by Tamara Pearson
(Open Books, 2015; $20.65)
Tamara Pearson is an independent left journalist from Australia who writes about Latin America. Her novel, The Butterfly Prison, set in Sydney, weaves together three different threads. In the following spoiler-filled review, I discuss each thread.
In the main thread, a young working-class woman named Mella leaves an unhappy home as a teenager, finding herself in an exploitative relationship while working in an exploitative retail job. At the job, she meets a friend, an Iranian refugee named Rafi, who introduces her first to union politics, then to radical politics, before being summarily deported to Iran and never seen again.
Mella has already become a part of an activist network by the time of Rafi's deportation, so her growth continues without him. We read about Mella's political awakening, her political education, and her participation in an ultimately successful revolution.
In the second thread, we read the story of an Aboriginal man named Paz as he grows up in a childhood marked by constant police harassment and violence. As a youth, he sets up a house with some young friends in the poor suburb of Macquarie fields, where they support one another and try to get by.
Paz takes shifts at a 7/11, works as an office cleaner for a few months; his friends busk in the subway, gamble for money, and make repairs in the neighbourhood. None of this is enough, as the police constantly return to raid their house, injure them, destroy their property, plant bugs, and make their lives intolerable.
In a (slightly) fictionalized version of the incident that precipitated the actual Macquarie fields riots of 2005, Paz is driving a car from a party when the police begin a chase. Paz loses control of the car, which crashes, killing one of his best friends. Paz surrenders to police and is imprisoned, where he lives the rest of his life, partly in solitary confinement, which destroys his sensitive mind. A fire in the prison sees him escape, but he has no options or hope, and commits a very violent suicide.
In the third thread, the author presents vignettes of incidents from various corners of the world. Inspired by Eduardo Galeano, the author turns a sensitive eye to environmental destruction, wasted human potential, and war, shown as the outcomes of the inequality and violence of capitalism.