The historical context behind America and “shithole countries”
February 13th 2018 | Chicago | Xavier Ward
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
The Trump administration is hardly a stranger to controversy. It has run the gauntlet of accusations of racism, collusion with foreign governments, obstruction of justice, public misinformation, authoritarian rhetoric, and most recently: using a slur to describe an entire continent and two other countries.
The Emperor has no clothes
Yet, Trump himself has — despite swaths of public acrimony and an abysmal public approval rating — remained largely unscathed. The Republican controlled House and Senate have made it easier for Trump to say and do as he pleases with no more than media scrutiny.
His latest mishap came during a private meeting on immigration, in which he allegedly branded the African nations, El Salvador, and Haiti as “shithole countries”, questioning why we should allow immigrants from these places and suggesting that we try to attract people from countries such as Norway. He had just met with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg the day before these disparaging remarks.
Moreover, Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin claims that Trump used the word “shithole” repeatedly throughout the meeting. The story has been broadly confirmed from multiple sources.
Photograph by Jonathan Ernst (Reuters)
Trump denied using the slur against African countries and claimed he never said anything derogatory towards Haiti, touting a “wonderful relationship with Haitians” in a tweet on January 12th.
He did, however, admit to using “tough” language in the meeting.
The African Union’s spokeswoman, Ebba Kalondo, told the Associated Press that they were alarmed by Trump’s comments. “Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behaviour and practice.”
The United States also has a complicated record with Haiti. If Durbin’s account of the meeting is true, which now seems to be the case, then the President must understand the United States’ historical role in upholding devastating conditions there.
Duvalier and the United States
When discussing the difficulties that Haiti faced for many decades, one would be remiss not to talk about how the U.S.’s complicity, and (at times) support, of the Duvaliers perpetuated those impoverished conditions and the murder of Haitian nationals.
François “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power in 1957 on a black nationalist and populist movement. Shortly after, he became “President for Life” in a sham election in 1964 and ruled until his death in 1971.
After his death, he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who ruled until 1985 when a rebellion unseated him and he fled to France, only to return in 2011.
“In his first speech on October 22, 1957, President Duvalier promised government unity, reconciliation, and financial redistribution. However, within weeks, he began to destroy all past or potential opposition in order to centralize power in himself and remain in power” — according to Dominican Republic and Haiti, a Library of Congress report.
Diagram by The Economist
“President Duvalier reigned supreme for fourteen years. Even in Haiti, where dictators had been the norm, François Duvalier gave a new meaning to the term. Duvalier and his henchmen killed between 30,000 and 60,000 Haitians,” the report read.
All the while, the U.S. was supplying roughly $15 million in aid to Haiti, most of which would line the pocketbook of Mr. Duvalier.
That aid was not cut until his sham election in 1962.
“By 1961 Duvalier had received US$40.4 million in foreign assistance, mainly as gifts from the United States,” the report states. According to that same report, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy cut the aid after Duvalier refused to diverge what it was being used for. Still, he secretly received U.S. funds, and after Kennedy’s death, aid money began to flow openly again.
All the while, the Haitian people languished. Following his death, his son was no kinder; Jean-Claude had come into a fortuitous — albeit violent — political situation.
Shortly after coming into office, he declared Haiti would always be an aid to the U.S. in its fight against communism, and the relationship between the two continued as it had before.
A legacy of death and violence
“Bolstered by the U.S., the regime operated with impunity. Government funds were embezzled and siphoned out of the country, which later enabled Duvalier to live well in exile. Poverty, environmental decline, and poor health conditions in much of the country went unaddressed,” The New Yorker’s Laurent Dubois wrote of the situation, shortly after Jean-Claude’s death in 2014.
While Jean-Claude boasted of an economic uptick due to foreign companies setting up shop in Haiti, thus branding it the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” the anguish endured. Political opponents were imprisoned, tortured, or exiled. Those fortunate enough to escape to the United States set up communities, and there the anti-Duvalier sentiment boiled, but American aid to the dictator who was living up to his father’s namesake persisted.
It was not until 1985 that he was ousted in a military rebellion and fleeing to France the following year. In 1987, former President Ronald Reagan ordered the remaining U.S.-based assets of the Duvalier family frozen.
Photograph from Bettman/Corbis
Nonetheless, the U.S. government’s seeming affinity for the dictator did not stop there.
Despite Jean-Claude’s legacy of destruction, he resurfaced from exile in France in 2011, shortly after the devastating earthquake. It was seemingly a slap in the face to Haitian citizens who had suffered under him. While a court did decide he could be charged with crimes against humanity in February 2014, he died October of the same year.
In 2011, around the time Jean-Claude resurfaced, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for the presidency of Michel Martelly, whose rule just ended in 2016.
Martelly’s presidency paled in comparison to the authoritarianism of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, but he did utilize the power structure put in place by them for his own benefit, welcome Jean-Claude’s son into his regime, and do so with blatant U.S. support.
The United States has a habit of sticking its nose into dictatorships and failing governments.
Take the Arab Spring for example. One could argue that the U.S.’s intentions were noble, but its track record of successfully changing the tide in other countries is lackluster at best and near-criminal at worst.
The story is no different in Haiti. If Trump did indeed brand Haiti a “shithole”, then his administration should also acknowledge the United States’ role in making it one.
On June 1st, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. It was not necessarily unexpected given his previous train of Obama-era policy reversals, but nonetheless his decision was met with widespread criticism from politicians, environmentalists, and business leaders around the world. Yet, his own party members have either continued to praise the decision to withdraw or remained silent on the issue.
For the political party that has heralded global climate change as a non-issue, natural fluctuation in the climate, or – as the President has said – a “myth” conjured by the Chinese, this response, much like the President’s decision, was unsurprising.
According to Article II, The agreement aimed to keep global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels, decrease greenhouse gas emissions in a way that does not halt food production, and carve a financial pathway consistent with those aims.
Nearly all scientists – at an overwhelming 97% of peer-reviewed studies – agree that global climate change is real. Through recent research, we have been able to tie human activity and industrialisation directly to this unprecedented global rise in temperatures.
Diagram from NASA
Ever since the second industrial revolution, planet Earth has been facing the most dramatic rise in climate change and pollution that human civilisation has ever witnessed.
Now, with the new millennium’s rapidly increasing trends of globalisation and consumerism, the threat of reaching a “tipping point” caused by positive feedback loops in the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) looms dangerously close.
Since its establishment in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has continuously upgraded its synthesis of the scientific community’s opinion, most recently stating that it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause” of climate change due to the anthropogenic release of GHGs.
Failing to meet the Paris Agreement’s vision could result in a range of catastrophic consequences, including failing crop yields, melting glaciers, decreased water availability, damaged coral reefs, rapid extinction, and extreme weather events.
So, knowing all this, why were Republican lawmakers under the Trump administration elated at the decision to withdraw from this agreement? What element are we missing from this equation of facts?
Lobbyism is the likely answer. After all, the oil industry’s campaign donations and close relationships with the GOP are no coincidence. They are the manipulators of a deliberate and long-standing strategy to undermine climate science at every opportunity, and the results thus far have been disastrous.
Yet, it was not so long ago that a Republican, not a Democrat, ran a presidential campaign with a pro-environment agenda. As The New York Timesreported shortly after the president’s decision to withdraw from the accord, it was Republican Senator John McCain who had run against former President Barack Obama on a climate change platform in 2008.
Photograph from Democracy Now!
McCain touted himself as the man who stood tough on climate change in the face of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. And more recently, he suggested that America should uphold the Paris Agreement, citing the death of the Great Barrier Reef as a symptom of global climate change.
He has since been diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer. Unfortunately for the 81-year-old senator and Vietnam War veteran, treatment options are limited. However, he is not alone as a Republican in the fight against climate change.
Other politically vocal Republicans – politicians or otherwise – have also articulated concerns about climate change. In March, 17 Republicans introduced a resolution to the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledging climate change as a real, man-made phenomenon.
“We want the caucus to act as an ideas factory for climate change solutions,” said Carlos Curbelo, Florida Republican Congressman who co-chairs the Climate Solutions Caucus. “We will be modest at first, but I think you’ll see more and more ideas.”
Nevertheless, when Trump decided to withdraw, Republicans were largely united in their praise of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement.
When did that become a trend among Republicans? And why must Republican politicians either oppose climate change or remain silent on the issue?
When his decision was made public, Trump cited the “draconian” nature of the agreement, stating that it set in place arbitrary climate goals that hurt U.S. workers and businesses.
Photograph from C-SPAN
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the President said in his speech. He then stated that he would personally call the leaders of Britain, Germany, France and Canada to reassure his commitment to trans-Atlantic relations and tell them that he wished to negotiate a better deal for Americans.
Only minutes later, however, the leaders of France, Italy, and Germany issued a joint statement stating that the climate standards set in place by the Paris Agreement were non-negotiable.
Withdrawal from the agreement marked a victory for former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who both reportedly urged the president to withdraw behind closed doors.
Coal is doomed
The isolationist and job-centric justification that Trump gave for his decision, all while decrying the empirical findings of climate science, is in-line with much of the other rhetoric witnessed during his campaign and throughout his early days in office.
On the campaign trail, Trump gave an impassioned decree to the people of Pennsylvania that he would bring coal workers back to the mines and steel back to Pittsburgh.
The rough-and-tumble industries that built the area are now struggling, and many of the workers in the formerly lucrative industries spend their days sending out résumés rather than hauling coal or refining steel.
Photograph by Mark Lyons
Still, his lavish campaign promises struck a chord with workers seeking to remedy a dying industry. Just enough to get their votes. It’s no coincidence that Trump won Greene County, Pennsylvania by a whopping 40 points, where John McCain and former President Obama nearly tied in the presidential election.
Coal jobs are projected to their lowest numbers since 1978, and roughly 30,000 jobs have been lost in the past few years. Withdrawing from the Paris accord will not bring jobs back to these industries, and therein lies the issue with his justification for leaving.
According to a survey from The Solar Foundation, jobs in the solar industry have soared in past decade, showing aggressive job growth since 2010 with around 260,000 Americans employed in that ecosystem.
The only energy industry that still employs more than solar is oil & petroleum, which constitutes 38% of the country’s energy workers.
Trump’s commitment to job growth may seem noble at the surface level, but the reality is that the industry is dying. Human workers are being replaced by machines, old methods are being swept aside by new technology, and mines all across coal country are closing.
Photograph from WindEurope
Despite the apparent facts, Republican lawmakers still praised the President’s decision to leave this historic agreement with 195 countries committed to fighting climate change together.
In the Trump era, U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the archetype of the Republican establishment. He was a vocal critic of Donald Trump on the campaign trail, and even rescinded an invitation to speak at a major event in his home state of Wisconsin after tapes emerged of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women and entering their changing rooms during a pageant.
However, when Trump actually secured the votes he needed to claim the office of the President, Ryan said that Trump had done a great thing for the Republican establishment by giving them control of all three branches of government.
Time is running out
Since he took office in January, the Republican establishment has grown ever more congruent with Trump’s agenda. Whether it is for fear of voter backlash or out of general unwillingness to break from establishment ideology, the GOP continues to add fuel to the fire of Trump’s rhetoric against climate science.
The result is a nation filled with people who are in denial of the facts: climate change is the greatest existential threat our species has ever faced. Politics can always change, but the environment only has one chance.
A recent article in The New Yorker painted a troubling and vivid portrait of the opioid crisis facing many areas of the nation. In her piece, Margaret Talbot details a number of graphic overdoses that have taken place in West Virginia, the U.S. state with the highest rate of opioid overdoses per 100,000 people (39.3). What is the cause of this phenomenon, and what can be done to alleviate it?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2015, there were more than 52,000 Americans killed by drug overdoses – or one every 10 minutes.
According to The Economist, about 33,000 of those can be attributed to opioids, the most common of which are prescription painkillers and heroin. While major cities feel some of the weight, it is actually areas such as Midwest America and Appalachia which are being truly devastated by this crisis.
In certain parts of the country, including Talbot’s focus of Berkeley County in West Virginia, overdoses are a daily occurrence. They seem to be taking place almost anywhere and at anytime. “Many addicts are collapsing in public – in gas stations, in restaurant bathrooms, in the aisles of big-box stores”, writes Talbot.
Graphic by The Economist
The number of overdoses has shot up dramatically around the country over the past several years as heroin has started to be laced with powerful prescription medications such as fentanyl. In the 21-country area surrounding Toledo, Ohio, there were only 8 overdose deaths in 2010. In the first six months of 2016, that same number was 127 deaths.
The burden placed upon paramedics has been so extreme that even entire teams of paramedics working 24-hour shifts are unable to reach every overdose in a timely manner. In those cases where they do, the main course of action is to administer a potentially life-saving dose of Narcan – a drug used to counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. Classes are now being offered to average citizens in areas with high overdose rates so that they know how to administer the drug themselves should the situation arise.
The issue can be traced, at least in part, to the explosion in powerful prescription medications in the United States. In 1991, the number of opioid medications (Oxycontin, Vicodin, etc.) supplied to pharmacies was 76 million. In 2011, that number was 219 million.
Perhaps even more telling is the fact, according to The Economist, “in 2002 one in six users took a pill more powerful than morphine. By 2012 it was one in three.” Pharmaceutical companies and doctors have begun scaling back the prescriptions for painkillers, but that has turned people already hooked on opiates towards drugs like heroin instead, which is substantially cheaper than any prescription opioid.
Photograph via Getty Images
Certain officials, such as Governor Hogan, have pledged money and attention to the issue. Even U.S. President Donald Trump commented on America’s “terrible drug epidemic” during his speech before Congress in February, and in one of his few positive moves he set up a commission on drug addiction and offered $500 million to combat the problem.
Making matters worse is the aforementioned fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that is 50 times more powerful than heroin. The result is a dramatic increase in fatal overdoses in a number of states. In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency after the combination of heroin and fentanyl killed 1,468 Maryland residents in the first nine months of 2016, a 62% increase from previous year.
It is not as if this is a problem we are mentioning for the first time. Highly regarded publications, including those cited in this article, have offered enormous spaces devoted to discussing this enormous issue.
Among others, The Economist firmly advocates the decriminalization of all drugs to replace America’s deeply-flawed policy of prohibition with a focus on health treatment and safe use centres:
Banning drugs is not just ineffective, it is also counterproductive. Fentanyl is a nasty substance, but prohibiting all illicit drugs, whether they are new or established, prevents the research that could distinguish between those which are more and less harmful. It also leads to topsy-turvy outcomes. Marijuana, which cannot lead to overdoses and which can be used as an effective pain-relief medicine, is classified by the federal authorities in America as a more dangerous drug than fentanyl, which is used in very controlled doses by cancer patients and abused fatally across the country.
It takes guts to legalise drugs when so many are dying from them. But it is better that addicts take safe doses of familiar substances under sanitary conditions than for them to risk their lives enriching criminals. Switzerland followed the legalisation path after a heroin epidemic in the 1980s, treating drugs as a public-health problem. Since then drug-taking and drug-related deaths have fallen. America should follow suit.
Every day that passes, 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose. And every day that passes without real solutions to this very real problem, those deaths will linger over the heads of those that have seen the problem, acknowledged it, and then decided to mire in inaction and rhetoric.
How patriotic populism empowers authoritarian politics
March 11th 2017 | The Hague | Melih Uzun
Photograph by Getty Images
Ever since Donald Trump was elected into office, critics have been suggesting that it is an indication of the global rise of right-wing populism, with similar rhetoric set to emerge victorious in European countries as well. The upcoming elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) tops the polls, could prove to be a major trial for this hypothesis.
Islam and integration
Geert Wilders is arguably one of the most polarising figures in Holland. He is infamous for his outspoken anti-Islam views and has been a constant source of controversy for over a decade. The numerous death threats he has accumulated over the course of the years have even led him to require full-time police protection.
Besides religion, he is also often accused of inciting hatred against ethnic minorities – especially the local Moroccan community – over issues related to violence, crime, and lack of integration. In 2014, his Freedom Party held a meeting in The Hague that was illustrative of the polarising rhetoric adored by many, while leaving others trembling with indignation.
Having asked his audience whether they wanted to see more or less of the European Union and Labour Party, both questions were met with chants of “less, less, less”. He then went on to ask them whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans and – upon hearing them chant the same answer once again – ensured his supporters that he would “get it done”.
Photograph by Fabrizio Bensch
Hundreds of people filed police complaints and he was tried for charges of incitement to discrimination. Wilders was finally found guilty (but not penalised) in December – a decision which he vowed to appeal against.
Wilders enjoys the support of a substantial part of the population. However, he is also widely criticised for his evasive tendencies, for his preference of bold statements over elucidated plans (his election manifesto is just a single page), and for shying away from settings which would allow his agenda to be questioned.
He has withdrawn himself from public debate on two occasions, the most recent of which was caused by a feud with a media outlet. The hosting TV station had contacted Wilders’s brother earlier for an interview, which angered the PVV politician. Wilders, however, maintains that the boycott is a matter of principle, claiming that his privacy was violated and rejecting any allegations about him “dodging” the debate.
Make the Netherlands Ours Again
As much as Wilders is accused of being evasive towards the media, British journalist John Sweeney managed to land an invitation to interview him for BBC Newsnight. Upon meeting Wilders at the House of Representatives, he was quick to ask him a frank question: “are you going to do to Holland what Mr. Trump is doing to America?”
Wilders rejects the notion that he is merely a Dutch copy of Trump, but he has admitted that there was “indeed, a patriotic spring going on”. He considers Brexit to be a turning point, where Brits supposedly reclaimed their country “even though the political elite made sure to scare the people away from voting in favour of leaving the European Union”. The same applies to the US, where “despite all the rhetoric of the elite, Mr. Trump won the election”.
Furthermore, Wilders confirmed his admiration of Trump by stating that he hopes to “repeat the same thing, because once again, the people want to be in charge again”. According to his vision: “It’s not only America first; it’s also Holland first, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Photograph by Yves Herman
In an attempt to gauge his stance on threats of terrorism other than those stemming from radical Islam, Sweeney asked Wilders what the biggest loss of Dutch lives (by terror) has been in the last few years. His response was that the Netherlands have been “lucky not to suffer the kind of attacks that Germany, France, Belgium, and even the United Kingdom” have faced.
Wilders was caught off guard by Sweeney’s prompt mention of flight MH17, referring to the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, killing everyone on board. The lives of 193 Dutch citizens were lost that day, and Russia remains the prime suspect – despite denying any such allegations. Sweeney hinted at this attack to illustrate why he believes Wilders might be obsessed with “one element of the spectrum” (Islamic extremism) while ignoring more pressing issues such as “Russian fascism”.
Wilders chuckled slightly and asserted that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with freedom. Therefore, he says “the Islamisation of Dutch society needs to be stopped, or we will cease to exist”. His critical outlook on Islam is reflected in the PVV’s ideology, which is further characterised by staunch Euroscepticism and nationalism.
These ideas became apparent once again in Wilders’s rebuttal of Sweeney’s concern about slogans like America First or Holland First, which he considers reminiscent of the zeitgeist of Europe at the brink of the Second World War. Wilders dismissed this as fearmongering by politicians to distract from the establishment of “another totalitarian institution, which is called the European Union”.
Fake news and fake Parliament
The BBC journalist was clearly taken aback by Wilders’s characterisation of the EU as a “totalitarian institution”, but perhaps remarks like these need not come as a surprise from somebody whom he likened to Donald Trump – a man who is no stranger to stirring up controversy.
By his own admission, Wilders admires Trumps victory against the “political elite”. This quintessentially populist pretence of aligning with the people as opposed to the elite seems to be a part of both of their success formulas.
Experts attribute Trump’s popularity to his unconventional ways that distinguish him from the archetypal politician. Despite being a billionaire, Trump won the hearts of millions of ordinary Americans by presenting an eccentric anti-establishment alternative to the tired, old, sophisticated-sounding candidates people had grown increasingly sceptical about.
Photograph by CNN
Likewise, the fact that Wilders is one of the longest-serving Members of Parliament doesn’t keep him from condemning the “political elite”, whom he deems to be ignorant of the life of the average Dutchman. On one occasion, he even denounced the National Assembly and its MPs altogether, calling it a “fake Parliament” that does not represent the will of the people.
Wilders’s position to lecture an elected parliament on democracy is questionable at best, as he is de jure the only member of his Freedom Party, allowing him to single-handedly dictate their entire policy agenda.
This statement bears another striking resemblance to Trumpisms, and more specifically to his unfounded denunciation of various media as “fake news”. Both politicians evidently see no issue in arbitrarily delegitimising institutions such as media outlets – or even the House of Representatives.
What makes this most worrisome is that this mindset, when sufficiently empowered by populism, could lead to dangerous forms of authoritarian politics. After all, if there is any common ground between the regimes of countries like China, Russia, and Turkey, it would be their aversion to voices of dissent.
Patriotic spring or Democratic autumn?
Whilst some may argue that it is a bit of a stretch to compare populists like Trump or Wilders to real authoritarians, there is much more to it than meets the eye.
In fact, concerns that have been raised thus far are arguably just the tip of the iceberg; an investigation initiated by the Dutch Bar Association uncovered a multitude of proposals from the PVV’s one-page election manifesto that were found to be detrimental to the rule of law.
Their programme was found to be at odds with EU and International Law (including the United Nations’ Refugee Convention), as well as the Dutch constitution, as it intends to endanger freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of education, and the right to a fair trial. One cannot help but wonder if Wilders was being ironic when he named his party.
Diagram by Peilingwijzer
His disdain for the establishment runs much deeper than his attack on parliament suggested, because his objection goes far beyond feuds with fellow MPs. He has publicly accused judges and prosecutors of being politically biased against him and his party, which is a straightforward denunciation of the entire justice system and the separation of powers.
There is no apparent limit to the lengths Wilders would go to in order to play the victim of an arbitrarily defined set of forces and institutions – or rather the “political elite” – who are unanimously set on conspiring against him and his beliefs.
With just a few days to go until the elections, Wilders’s popularity in polls appears to be stagnant, but his Freedom Party may still win up to 28 out of 150 seats. The PVV is matched with the governing Conservative Liberals (VVD), who have a fair chance at retaining the largest number of MPs, despite a projected decline from their current 41 seats.
However, the sitting government is a coalition of Liberals and the Labour Party (PvdA), and the latter is set to face an even sharper decline from 38 to a projected 14 or even 9 seats. Other parties who are expected to receive a considerable amount of votes on March 15 include the Christian Democrats (CDA; ~19 seats), the Liberal Democrats (D66; ~18 seats), the Green Party (GL; ~16 seats) and the Socialist Party (SP; ~14 seats).
Europe marches on
Most mainstream parties have vowed to exclude the Freedom Party from coalition talks. This offers consolation, as it seems their vision for the Netherlands will never see the light of day.
However, given the distinctly fractured state of Dutch politics, forming a coalition without the PVV might also prove to be a challenge. Furthermore, excluding Wilders from government will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire, contributing to his narrative of fighting for the neglected common man.
This seemingly prolific narrative, as employed by Donald Trump, may pave the way to a milestone for the Freedom Party in this election, as well victories for other right-wing movements like Le Pen’s Front National. But only time will tell if this patriotic spring, as Wilders calls it – a staggering resurgence of nationalist and populist rhetoric – will lead to an actual victory in the name of freedom.
If you want to protect yourself, protect journalism
February 17th 2017 | Wisconsin | Xavier Ward
Illustration by Mike Reddy
Freedom of press is a fundamental tenet of the United States and is even written into its Constitution. Its purpose was to monitor the operations of government, protecting the people from tyranny creeping up on them before they could realize it.
Journalists are often tasked with taking the humdrum language of statutes, bills, and meetings and translating them into common, easily understandable language. This serves the essential purpose of allowing those who would not otherwise be aware of the inner workings of governmental bureaucracy to stay informed – at least to a certain level.
Fake news or no news?
When Thomas Jefferson was asked whether he would rather have newspapers without government or government without newspapers, he replied: “A government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”.
In Jefferson’s more eloquent, longer response, he goes on to spell out the importance of honest journalism. In short, it protects people from the government and allows us to actively participate in democracy without having to go through the pain of deciphering the language of bills and statutes.
Tweet by Donald Trump
It is no secret that the Trump administration has its qualms with journalists. Throughout his campaign, Trump consistently berated the media and reporters, calling them dishonest and unreliable as well as accusing them of adhering to a hidden agenda.
The phenomenon of fake news is particularly damaging. It is always good to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism, but complete distrust and disqualification is an entirely different story.
What he is doing is not simply puffing out his chest; he is creating mass distrust against major news sources which do not support his political onslaught. This is destructive, as it delegitimizes an industry that should be serving as a lookout for society.
Trump has long been subjected to an echo chamber of his own bigotry, and he does not like it. From the beginning of his campaign he castigated the media for any sort of negative attention, even when it was simply repeating what he said.
He has instilled a distrust in media to the point where many of his supporters no longer believe the news if it offers a conflicting viewpoint to their own narrative. This may be indicative of other issues plaguing the mind of Trump supporters, but that is another story entirely.
Tweet by CNN
This unprecedented behavior – tarnishing the media’s credibility – is far more destructive than making a mockery of a long-respected career.
Most recently, White House chief strategist and author of a number of the president’s executive orders, Steve Bannon, told the media to “keep its mouth shut”. This is not even a sly attempt at censorship: “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States”.
Later, when questioned about his concerns regarding White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s standing with the media, he responded: “Are you kidding me? We think that’s a badge of honor. Questioning his integrity – are you kidding me? The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work”. This is dangerous and hypocritical language from a man who once ran a rather questionable publication called Breitbart.
Journalists typically avoid cliché as it tends to be less impactful than an original commentary and it can be easily dismissible, but sometimes it is too relevant to ignore.
In this case, the cliché of likening George Orwell’s fantastic novel 1984 to our current political situation is all too easy. It is low-hanging fruit. That novel is not supposed to be a manual, but it seems the Trump administration is hell-bent on giving it a good try.
Barely a week into his presidency, Trump ordered a total media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was suspiciously close in time to his executive order to push forward the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. It ordered all EPA agencies not to access social media or send out press releases, stipulating that any press contact must be approved by a member of the Trump administration.
Photograph from Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
“Incoming media requests will be carefully screened”, a directive said. “Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press.” The Ministry of Truth would approve of these actions, but they are not conducive to a free and open society.
As of the first week of the presidency, Sean Spicer is not as loquacious as a press secretary should be when fielding questions from reporters. He has given a lot of short or dismissive answers, and in his first press conference he was reluctant to call on reporters from major news organizations.
The fine print of this action is far more frightening than it may appear. That is because journalism is more important than some care to admit. This unnecessary muckraking puts a strain on an already struggling industry, but whether you like it or not: you need journalism.
This inherent distrust in the media is dangerous because it allows the new administration to act without discretion. Newspapers, and this newer generation of online publications, should serve as a watchdog for its readers.
Journalism is a flawed necessity
Trump has made a lot of wild, inflammatory claims; most recently that he believes 3 to 5 million people voted illegally during the election. This claim, like most others, is entirely unsubstantiated, and the fact that his investigation focuses on states in which he lost to Hillary Clinton seems to indicate that he is still a little sore about losing the popular vote.
However, his tendency to spit wild, unsubstantiated claims is exactly why we need journalism. His populous following will blindly adhere what he has to say, but the greater American people, and the rest of the world for that matter, have a right to know what he is saying, how he is, saying it, and whether there is any truth to it.
Illustration by Shutterstock
This is not to say media organizations are without flaw. Many popular news outlets are wildly biased and their content adheres to an agenda instead of laying out the facts. A good example of this was Breitbart’s attempt to discredit climate change, which was swiftly refuted by Weather.com. Breitbart cited one organization’s estimates, ignoring the plethora of other organizations giving exceedingly different assessments.
Another example is NowThis, a popular left-wing media source, which chopped up a video of one of Trump’s speeches in response to the Orlando shooting. Put side by side, the NowThis version shows a doctored and somewhat dishonest representation of what Trump said. In reality, it was far more moderate than it was made out to be. It is easy for media to enforce a certain narrative by presenting things out of context.
These organizations, by adhering to a biased agenda, have the same effect as Trump’s media onslaught. They create a distrust in media and contribute to the deligitimization of major news sources, lumping them all together with tabloids and profit-driven sensationalism.
Skepticism vs. deligitimization
It is true that one should approach all matters with a dose of healthy skepticism, and that rings especially true when consuming media in today’s world.
However, to attempt to entirely discredit an industry which was instrumental to sustaining democracy and is integral to governmental transparency stinks of something viler, and much more malicious than the surface level actions would have one believe. While some media outlets do express an inherent bias, trying to paint all conservatives in a negative light, this is not true of many major media outlets.
While the media as a whole is far from perfect, encouraging and protecting honest journalism is vital to protecting civil liberties. If you want to protect society from governmental wrongdoings – not just the Trump administration’s – then protect and support free media.
If you want to protect yourself, protect journalism.
January 31st 2017 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez
Graphic by Bartu Kaleagasi
Social networks are the defining innovation of this generation. They are a tool which has given us previously unimaginable levels of connectivity, as well as the ability to easily keep up to date with global news and specific issues that we care about.
Yet, in the midst of a discussion about the so-called “fake news” circulating throughout social media, little attention has been given to another serious problem: the detrimental side effect of our dependence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on. Unknowingly, we have created – and consequently live in – digital political bubbles.
A polarisation of ideas
As many have noted, society has never been as politically polarised as it is today. In fact, studies show that we increasingly identify with a particular political party and view the opposite party as “dangerous”.
One reason for this phenomenon is that many of our choices in life are inherently political. We are less likely to be friends with people whose politics are wildly different from ours. We are less likely to live in a neighbourhood where our neighbours have drastically different ideologies from us. Income, background, and geography are all indicators of our politics. The more similar we are with those around us, the more we isolate ourselves from different political opinions. The result? We end up viewing these similar opinions as more “normal” than the rest, hence the polarisation.
Diagram by Washington Post
However, this is not the only factor in play. Even though this sort of polarisation has always existed, it is not an omnipotent force. After all, who has not been challenged on their opinions by colleagues, classmates, or old friends? In today’s world, social welfare policies mean that we no longer only interact with people from identical backgrounds and profiles. Middle class students go to the same public schools as low income students, increasing opportunities for minorities mean our offices are ever more diverse, and while racial segregation in housing is still present, it is much lower than it used to be.
This means that we interact daily with individuals who are quite different from us, being exposed to a variety of opinions. That is what makes for awkward dinners with everyone’s Marxist friend, and why at the end of the day we know and value different political standpoints from ours.
Social networks & algorithms
The advent of social networks has changed this dynamic of political tolerance. One of our most frequent and cherished pastimes is to scroll through our social network newsfeed, and with 2.32 billion people projected to own smartphones in 2017, the separation from political clemency could broaden.
This newsfeed, and our interaction with it, is of vital importance when it comes to our worldview, and hence, our political ideology. One might think that there is nothing political about funny videos or pictures from our friend’s night out. Indeed, not everyone’s feed is full of news articles. However, most social media users can attest to the fact that in between everyday posts, we also see content of a political nature.
Diagram by Dennis Jenders
Videos of refugees begging for help on the coast of Greece frequently popped up last year. So have articles about climate change and the need for action, and the day would not be complete without an article decrying the latest Trump buffoonery. The prevalence of this content varies depending on our individual preferences. However, even the smallest interaction is registered and used by the social network’s machine learning algorithms.
Our interaction with such political content determines the frequency with which we will see similar or relevant information again in our newsfeed. Our newsfeed “knows” what we want to see based on how we interact with it – perhaps the most prominent use of artificial intelligence in current times.
For example, I – along with only 46% of the world – believe climate change is the biggest threat we face today. I am interested in our fight for cleaner energy, which is why I frequently read and share information about it on social media.
My interaction with Facebook posts about climate change is extensive. Facebook’s algorithm can easily pick up on this and oh-so gracefully provide me the content I want in the form of relevant articles my friends have shared. It is unlikely that Facebook will show me articles shared by my friends that it deems less relevant to my interaction patterns. An article arguing against the closing of a coal mine, for example, is less likely to appear in my newsfeed. This is not simply because I do not follow pages that are most likely to publish it. It is because it will go against the “narrative” my clicks, likes, shares and comments have told Facebook I believe in.
Here lies the problem of our digital political bubble. Our perception of what is going on in the world is less influenced by everyday conversation with people who might not agree with us, and more influenced by the content of our social media which always agrees with us.
Photograph by Dominick Reuter
Our politics suffer from this dynamic because it inevitably reinforces our perception over others. I for one could read twenty articles on climate change in the course of a month, but not a single one on the negative economic and social impacts of environmental regulation (e.g. closing a coal mine in low-income areas). Am I not living in a bubble?
Let’s take another example, the previously mentioned refugee crisis. People reading this article will most likely have seen in their newsfeed a video of refugees stranded at sea; teary, desperate individuals trying to reach Europe’s shores. Or perhaps even a video condemning anti-refugee statements. A conservative voter in the United States, however, will have had a completely different set of information presented to them. They would have followed pages, people and newspapers that you and I have not. And their friends will have posted content that would not come across our screens.
The result of this disparity is that the perception these two people have over the refugee crisis is so vastly different, that is becomes almost incomprehensible to both why the other would have such an opinion. Thus, there is a direct link between our usage of social media and the current phenomenon of political polarisation.
Moreover, social networks like Facebook offer a platform for millions of media organisations to expand their content and bring in more traffic and revenue. This gives these news outlets and companies just one key incentive: to make us click on the article or video they just shared.
Studies have shown that the most reliable stimulator in our brain – the factor that is most likely to make us click on something – is anger. A video of a cat might make us think about it for a minute or two, but the emotion that it provokes is so minimal that it will not stay with us for long.
Article from Daily Mail
A video of a racist attack in the subway, however, will make us angry, and thus will have a far more significant impact. It will compel us to read about this episode in detail; to go see whether the attacker was apprehended, or whether bystanders helped. In other words, we will care more.
Generating anger is the most compelling way to engage with users. News sites who look to generate traffic through Facebook know this. That is why websites regularly post information that they know will make their readers angry, and prompt them to click, to “see more”.
The unintended consequence of this process, however, is that it serves to accentuate political polarisation. Not only do we perceive different realities through social media, but we also regularly see content that make us more impassioned and angrier.
United in diversity
The overall argument laid out is not one against the use of social media. Social media has been, overall, significantly beneficial for everyone involved. However, it is important to understand how websites like Facebook use our behaviour on their platform to predict what it is we want from them, and what will make us stay online more often.
While this may be good for us in some ways, since it allows us to see and read more content related to topics that genuinely interest us, it also means that we live in a digital bubble, shielded from wildly different point of views or arguments. The implications of these bubbles are serious. Many of the shocking political events we experienced in 2016 can be partly linked to voters dealing with a different set of facts, and therefore wildly different perceptions.
There is, however, a simple solution to burst our digital bubbles. We must make the conscious decision to listen to and read arguments which we do not agree with. The only way to do this is by inserting different content into our social media. Here is a list of conservative podcasts, pages and people to follow, and here is one for both conservative and liberal audiences. Enjoy!
You might ask yourself – how is this possible? How did a candidate who was widely regarded as a dangerous joke by the media, the establishment, and even among his own party members, clinch the highest office in the country?
When this country was founded, it was founded on the basis of freedom and equality for all. That idea is what made America “great”.
Yet, at that time, black Americans were kept as property, and women were seen as second-class citizens. America was not great, and America still is not great. The ideas espoused by the American constitution are valuable, but the nation itself still has a lot progress to make in the 21st century.
Photograph from Obergefell v. Hodges
Depending on your race, social class, and identity, there’s a good chance America is a place where you live in constant fear of being harassed, assaulted, and even killed.
Now, being faced with the results of the election, there’s a fear amongst these groups of marginalized Americans that their very livelihood is in danger. That fear is legitimate.
Donald Trump, a reality television star, real estate mogul and President-elect, paints a picture of America in which we see our friends and loved ones being hurt just because of their background or identity. Make no mistake, he doesn’t care about you or anyone else.
A Democratic failure
Trump’s opponent in the race, Hillary Clinton, was the biggest mistake in Democratic history.
When the Democratic National Committee (DNC) colluded with Clinton to manipulate the primaries against a widely supported progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders, it became instantly clear that this would lead to an inevitable Trump presidency.
Sanders’s supporters were already suspicious of her anti-democratic behaviour during primary season, but when Wikileaks released dozens of DNC e-mails in support of those claims, it was the last nail in the coffin. As a result of this monumental mistake, dangerous populism triumphed over corrupt liberalism.
Another dimension to the Democratic party’s failure is that they backed an establishment candidate during an election cycle where anti-establishment politics were spectacularly popular.
Hillary Clinton is a lifelong politician who personifies the epitome of American establishment politics. She speaks loudly and carries a small stick, so to say. In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “she’s never met a foreign donor she doesn’t like”. The public distrusted Clinton from the very beginning for her past decision-making, both as Secretary of State and Senator.
Photograph by Bloomberg
In fact, Bernie Sanders issued this exact warning in August 2015, when he addressed the Democratic party and told them that her campaign could not possibly win the election:
“Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout.
With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not be successful. The people of our country understand that — given the collapse of the American middle class and the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing — we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics.
We need a political movement which is prepared to take on the billionaire class and create a government which represents all Americans, and not just corporate America and wealthy campaign donors. In other words, we need a movement which takes on the economic and political establishment, not one which is part of it.”
Although it may also reflect a general distrust for politicians, mostly because people are told they have many reasons to be angry, Hillary Clinton’s criticisms are not illegitimate.
However, when given the choice between a Clinton or Trump presidency, there is no doubt that she was the correct choice, or at the least the most acceptable choice to the reasonable voter.
The pitiful state of America
This election is telling of the state of the American mindset.
In the face of racism, sexism, homophobia, police violence, and islamophobia, half the country managed to believe that Trump wasn’t merely touting those issues as speaking points to get elected. We were wrong, and we will have to live with that decision for the rest of our days.
What Trump did was mobilize a group of non-voters. Americans who felt so far separated from politics that they would vote for any candidate who represents radical change. Trump’s running mate and Vice President to be, Mike Pence, the gay-bashing theocrat and friend of the Falwells, is really the cherry on top. In fact, he supports such a backwards agenda, that he and his wife have even funded gay conversion therapy.
Photograph by Michael Henninger
Considering that when John Kasich met with Eric Trump, Eric assured him that the Vice President would be making all real policy decisions, Pence will likely be the puppeteer pulling the strings. When Kasich asked what Donald Trump’s role would be, he simply replied “making America great again”.
Trump’s supporters, mostly uneducated white people, were energized by his charisma, can-do attitude, and general disregard for the rules. “He speaks his mind,” says the Trump supporter. It doesn’t matter to them whether or not his raucous incoherence is based in fact or fiction. It also does not matter whether or not Trump has foreign policy experience, whether he understands the intricacies of macroeconomics, or even if he’ll actually fight for them.
They simply heard an echo of their own bigotry. An echo chamber of American exceptionalism, the idea that we are inherently better, while ignoring any of our own faults.
With Trump comes an era where the truth literally does not matter anymore. Facts don’t matter. Science doesn’t matter. Rhetoric rules supreme.
The most immediate effects of a Trump presidency, coupled with an entirely Republican-held Congress, will be the complete unravelling of President Obama’s progressive policies, to be replaced with the GOP’s toxic agenda.
Republicans now effectively control all three branches of government (executive, legislature, judiciary). What can we expect from them?
Supreme Court: with a vacant seat already left from Republican obstructionism against Obama’s nomination, Donald Trump could potentially appoint 2-3 new conservative justices – leading to the overruling of many important principles like gay marriage.
Economy and society: regressive policies against almost everyone in society, including the repeal of Obamacare – leading to continued rapid decline of the middle class.
Perhaps what matters even more is that Trump’s hateful ideology has now received national recognition, it has been given a voice on the highest of podiums. This sort of bigotry is what first shocked people about Trump, but no one took it seriously until it was too late, and soon it will be represented by the White House itself.
Even Trump’s braggadocious remarks of sexually assaulting women were not enough to unseat him. This is who we have elected, a man who brags of assaulting women and gets away with it. It was written off as “locker room banter”, but really it is an absolute slap in the face to the millions of survivors of sexual violence in our country.
Since the announcement of his candidacy and the publication of his views, we’ve seen an unfortunate rise in hate crime. Videos have emerged showing Confederate flag-flying Americans berating immigrants and minorities with racial slurs and threats of violence. Muslims being beaten and harassed in a country which holds freedom of religion as one of its most fundamental tenants. This is a farce.
Progress is the future
We’ve seen the danger of allowing hateful rhetoric to rule a country’s policy-making. Open a history book and you’ll find a litany of regimes which were all birthed from a single idea: “make this country greater than the rest”.
We need to examine what a “great” country actually is. Trump does not want greatness for America, he wants dominance, and he wants to be at the head of this movement.
A “great” America under Trump is a global hegemon who rules with an iron fist. It is a fearless leader who charges head-first into battle and emerges victorious, regardless of the cost. This is an image out of a tall tale, this is not the reality of the world we live in.
For a country to be great it does not need to be a domineering world power, but rather a global team player that values the lives of all and actively tries to make the world safer for everyone. The race to be the number one world super power is a dangerous and frightful game, and what goes up must come down.
In the face of adversity, Americans have only one option: to unify and hold one another up. Donald Trump will not make this country great, but its people can.