Cyberattack on America: How vulnerable to hacking is our election cyber infrastructure?

Voting Booth

(Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Following the hack of Democratic National Committee emails and reports of a new cyberattack against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, worries abound that foreign nations may be clandestinely involved in the 2016 American presidential campaign. Allegations swirl that Russia, under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, is secretly working to undermine the U.S. Democratic Party. The apparent logic is that a Donald Trump presidency would result in more pro-Russian policies. At the moment, the FBI is investigating, but no U.S. government agency has yet made a formal accusation.

The Republican nominee added unprecedented fuel to the fire by encouraging Russia to “find” and release Hillary Clinton’s missing emails from her time as secretary of state. Trump’s comments drew sharp rebuke from the media and politicians on all sides. Some suggested that by soliciting a foreign power to intervene in domestic politics, his musings bordered on criminality or treason. Trump backtracked, saying his comments were “sarcastic,” implying they’re not to be taken seriously.

Of course, the desire to interfere with another country’s internal political processes is nothing new. Global powers routinely monitor their adversaries and, when deemed necessary, will try to clandestinely undermine or influence foreign domestic politics to their own benefit. For example, the Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence service engaged in so-called “active measures” designed to influence Western opinion. Among other efforts, it spread conspiracy theories about government officials and fabricated documents intended to exploit the social tensions of the 1960s. Similarly, U.S. intelligence services have conducted their own secret activities against foreign political systems — perhaps most notably its repeated attempts to help overthrow pro-communist Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Although the Cold War is over, intelligence services around the world continue to monitor other countries’ domestic political situations. Today’s “influence operations” are generally subtle and strategic. Intelligence services clandestinely try to sway the “hearts and minds” of the target country’s population toward a certain political outcome.

What has changed, however, is the ability of individuals, governments, militaries and criminal or terrorist organizations to use internet-based tools — commonly called cyberweapons — not only to gather information but also to generate influence within a target group.

So what are some of the technical vulnerabilities faced by nations during political elections, and what’s really at stake when foreign powers meddle in domestic political processes?

Vulnerabilities at the electronic ballot box

The process of democratic voting requires a strong sense of trust — in the equipment, the process and the people involved.

One of the most obvious, direct ways to affect a country’s election is to interfere with the way citizens actually cast votes. As the United States (and other nations) embrace electronic voting, it must take steps to ensure the security — and more importantly, the trustworthiness — of the systems. Not doing so can endanger a nation’s domestic democratic will and create general political discord — a situation that can be exploited by an adversary for its own purposes.

As early as 1975, the U.S. government examined the idea of computerized voting, but electronic voting systems were not used until Georgia’s 2002 state elections. Other states have adopted the technology since then, although given ongoing fiscal constraints, those with aging or problematic electronic voting machines are returning to more traditional (and cheaper) paper-based ones.

New technology always comes with some glitches — even when it’s not being attacked. For example, during the 2004 general election, North Carolina’s Unilect e-voting machines “lost” 4,438 votes due to a system error.

But cybersecurity researchers focus on the kinds of problems that could be intentionally caused by bad actors. In 2006, Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten demonstrated how to install a self-propagating piece of vote-changing malware on Diebold e-voting systems in less than a minute. In 2011, technicians at the Argonne National Laboratory showed how to hack e-voting machines remotely and change voting data.

Voting officials recognize that these technologies are vulnerable. Following a 2007 study of her state’s electronic voting systems, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer L. Brunner announced that the computer-based voting systems in use in Ohio do not meet computer industry security standards and are susceptible to breaches of security that may jeopardize the integrity of the voting process.

As the first generation of voting machines ages, even maintenance and updating become an issue. A 2015 report found that electronic voting machines in 43 of 50 U.S. states are at least 10 years old — and that state election officials are unsure where the funding will come from to replace them.

Securing the machines and their data

In many cases, electronic voting depends on a distributed network, just like the electrical grid or municipal water system. Its spread-out nature means there are many points of potential vulnerability.

First, to be secure, the hardware “internals” of each voting machine must be made tamper-proof at the point of manufacture. Each individual machine’s software must remain tamper-proof and accountable, as must the vote data stored on it. (Some machines provide voters with a paper receipt of their votes, too.) When problems are discovered, the machines must be removed from service and fixed. Virginia did just this in 2015 once numerous glaring security vulnerabilities were discovered in its system.

Once votes are collected from individual machines, the compiled results must be transmitted from polling places to higher election offices for official consolidation, tabulation and final statewide reporting. So the network connections between locations must be tamper-proof and prevent interception or modification of the in-transit tallies. Likewise, state-level vote-tabulating systems must have trustworthy software that is both accountable and resistant to unauthorized data modification. Corrupting the integrity of data anywhere during this process, either intentionally or accidentally, can lead to botched election results.

However, technical vulnerabilities with the electoral process extend far beyond the voting machines at the “edge of the network.” Voter registration and administration systems operated by state and national governments are at risk too. Hacks here could affect voter rosters and citizen databases. Failing to secure these systems and records could result in fraudulent information in the voter database that may lead to improper (or illegal) voter registrations and potentially the casting of fraudulent votes.

And of course, underlying all this is human vulnerability: Anyone involved with e-voting technologies or procedures is susceptible to coercion or human error.

How can we guard the systems?

The first line of defense in protecting electronic voting technologies and information is common sense. Applying the best practices of cybersecurity, data protection, information access and other objectively developed, responsibly implemented procedures makes it more difficult for adversaries to conduct cyber mischief. These are essential and must be practiced regularly.

Sure, it’s unlikely a single voting machine in a specific precinct in a specific polling place would be targeted by an overseas or criminal entity. But the security of each electronic voting machine is essential to ensuring not only free and fair elections but fostering citizen trust in such technologies and processes — think of the chaos around the infamous hanging chads during the contested 2000 Florida recount. Along these lines, in 2004, Nevada was the first state to mandate e-voting machines include a voter-verified paper trail to ensure public accountability for each vote cast.

Proactive examination and analysis of electronic voting machines and voter information systems are essential to ensuring free and fair elections and facilitating citizen trust in e-voting. Unfortunately, some voting machine manufacturers have invoked the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act to prohibit external researchers from assessing the security and trustworthiness of their systems.

However, a 2015 exception to the act authorizes security research into technologies otherwise protected by copyright laws. This means the security community can legally research, test, reverse-engineer and analyze such systems. Even more importantly, researchers now have the freedom to publish their findings without fear of being sued for copyright infringement. Their work is vital to identifying security vulnerabilities before they can be exploited in real-world elections.

Because of its benefits and conveniences, electronic voting may become the preferred mode for local and national elections. If so, officials must secure these systems and ensure they can provide trustworthy elections that support the democratic process. State-level election agencies must be given the financial resources to invest in up-to-date e-voting systems. They also must guarantee sufficient, proactive, ongoing and effective protections are in place to reduce the threat of not only operational glitches but intentional cyberattacks.

Democracies endure based not on the whims of a single ruler but the shared electoral responsibility of informed citizens who trust their government and its systems. That trust must not be broken by complacency, lack of resources or the intentional actions of a foreign power. As famed investor Warren Buffett once noted, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

In cyberspace, five minutes is an eternity.The Conversation

Richard Forno is a senior lecturer and Cybersecurity & Internet Researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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Mothering, long-distance: There are no models for women who parent from hundreds of miles away

A photo of the author with her daughter

A photo of the author with her daughter. (Credit: Jenille Boston at Nell Boss Photography)

My daughter lost her first tooth late. By the time her first tooth came out, many of her classmates already smiled a handful of grownup teeth. She followed in her mother’s footsteps. My teeth were always slow. I still have all my wisdom teeth.

Her father texted me an un-captioned and unexpected snapshot of her tooth loss that evening. Her smile was lovely and proud and excited. She had been anticipating the loss of that first tooth for many weeks. She was eager to catch up with her classmates.

I wouldn’t see the actual space in her mouth for several days yet. Last summer, one month before she started in the first grade, I moved to a city three hours away from my daughter’s elementary school. I had a new job after finally completing my doctoral program. Since then, Nuala and I have been navigating what it means to love one another from a distance.

My daughter and my dissertation came into this world at about the same time. I began reading the scholarly literature for my prospectus the summer I was pregnant. I sat with my round and growing belly in the garage, with the sun streaming through the open door, reading about sexual violence, victimization and rape laws. It was a mishmash of the best and the worst of the world. Hope and trauma, all at once.

After my daughter was born on the last day of summer, I took some time off, and then resumed reading in the winter months. Now she nursed and napped on my lap while I read and formulated my prospectus. We couldn’t work in the mornings because that was time for play. I wrote in the evenings after she slept. Throughout her babyhood and toddlerhood, she often came with me to meetings, as she attended daycare only some of the time. It was all we could afford.

There was one conference in Chicago, at the beginning of her first summer, when I was scheduled to present first thing on a Sunday morning, and she cried all night long in the hotel room. But of course we survived and drove home to Michigan that afternoon with some new baby teeth.

Her father moved out shortly after her third birthday. He loved someone else. So we were already charting a non-traditional family formation when I moved south. Nuala was already used to shuttling between two homes. She was already accustomed to seeing a broad network of grownups as her people. Luckily, her teachers were great supporters and helped to frame her situation as ordinary, no better and no worse than her classmates’.

We continued on. I collected lots of data, and she grew into a kid. By the end, she was still snuggled next to me on the couch, watching cartoons and keeping me company, as I edited all the words I had written. One rainy afternoon last spring, she asked what I was doing. I told her I was writing a thing called a dissertation. Then she asked if I had written it that afternoon. When I told her, no, it took a long time to write, she nonchalantly turned back to the television.

As I neared the end of my dissertation, I was left with a choice: Which, if any, geographic restrictions should I place on my job search? My divorce had been long and hard, and I lost a lot. I had invested nearly a decade training to become a professor. I didn’t want to also lose the career toward which I had worked so many years. But the academic job market is brutal. Most graduate students go on a national search and count themselves lucky if they receive a single tenure track offer. It turns out that I was one of the lucky ones: I accepted a faculty position just 200 miles south of home.

After weighing all the ordinary concerns of a major life transition, I decided to pursue mothering and my career. Side by side, just like from the beginning. I was proud of what I had accomplished, and I wanted to model a strong professional identity for my daughter. Ultimately, I decided it would be better for Nuala to have a whole mother who she saw less frequently, rather than a broken and bitter mother who she saw exactly 50 percent of the week.

I believe that meaningful work does that to us. It makes us whole; it stimulates us; and it makes us better at raising up the next generation. Still, the distance is hard. When she was born, I assumed that I would be the one to tuck her in bed at night for many seasons to come. I assumed that I would see her every morning. I assumed that I would be there for her first missed tooth and then carefully pack it away for safekeeping after the Tooth Fairy’s nocturnal arrival. I didn’t give these things much thought, but they were there. It’s how I imagined my life as a mother.

We imagine mothers as being in physical proximity to their children. We get so caught up in the mommy wars — cloth or plastic diapers, big career versus stay-at-home mom, free-range or helicopter parenting — that we lose sight of the more fundamental questions. What does it mean to mother a child? What are the specific actions that lead to a well-adjusted child and an emotionally-engaged relationship? How important is daily proximity?

When I tell people about the circumstances with my daughter, their reactions indicate subtly just how central physical proximity is to our understanding of what it means to be a mother. I have received surprised faces, murmurs of apology, and shaking of heads. One friend gave me an unsolicited hug, gripping me tight, and said she was so sorry for me. These reactions of sympathy and shock come from my supporters who only want the best for Nuala and me. I can only imagine the vitriol that the naysayers might spew. Certainly no one has commended me for modeling professional aspirations and independence and financial stability to my daughter.

There are seemingly no models for how to be an engaged mother from a distance. It is almost impossible to imagine an alternative to the idea that mothers should be always close to their children. This is odd because there are many circumstances in which mothers are away from their children for long stretches of time. I look to military mothers and Filipina migrants who provide caregiving and domestic work in the U.S., even as their own children are left without a physically-proximate mother at home. Somehow they make it work.

Nuala and I are charting new territory. We explore all the pizza and ice cream joints on our weekends together. We have weekly Skype story sessions. She always wants to pet the cat as he careens into view on my laptop’s camera. So we then talk about how fun it would be if we could jump through the computer and be in the same room together. Maybe some day in the future, I remind her. I drive up for as many of her school events as I can manage. And we’re planning some summer travel adventures.

I also try to remind myself that each child is a child for a finite amount of time. It is impossible to imagine that a mother would or could be with her child for every moment of her youth. Certainly, this would be a form of hovercraft parenting upon which the experts would frown. For that matter, American time-use surveys indicate that most parents, even those for whom caregiving is their primary responsibility, tend to spend very little focused and engaged time with their children in any given day. I circle back to the question of what exactly it means to be an engaged parent.

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Strange, but true: Pokémon Go is a ray of hope in a bleak world

Pokemon Go Players

(Credit: Reuters/Jose Cabezas)

Chaos is the new norm. Though some news headlines may still be capable of eliciting shock, they will hardly surprise you anymore. It is a sign of the times when Chachi from the “Happy Days” can return from the celebrity wasteland to prime-time television as a speaker at the Republican National Convention. In Nice, a truck became a weapon of mass destruction when it plowed through a crowd for more than a mile and killed 84 people. Deliberate shootings of African Americans and police officers were seen in Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, yet, as Gary Younge writes, it remains “easier to obtain a semi-automatic gun than to obtain health care” in this country. In an attempt to flex his credentials as a future Secretary of Islamophobia and expose a mind bereft of constitutional knowledge, Newt Gingrich called for the testing and deportation of all Muslims who are Sharia sympathizers. Donald Trump, who has little appetite for reading or complexity, would potentially preside over such a world and make decisions of consequence. And so it is little surprise that 75 million people sought a reprieve from the madness and have chosen instead to tune out and hunt for Pokémon.

Pokémon Go is a pandemic. The game, which is available for free download on Android and iOS, is a resurrection of the Nintendo-owned Pokémon brand that became popular in the late 1990s. It is now once again ascendant. The feverishly downloaded app uses a cellphone’s GPS and camera to make creatures called Pokémon “appear” on a user’s screen in and around his or her surroundings, with the ultimate goal being to capture them. This encourages unprecedented physical exploration, for to catch them all, a player has to exhaustively wander around real-world locations in pursuit. And short of leaving the planet, players are going almost everywhere. A 19-year-old girl in Wyoming discovered a dead body in the river during her quest. Two Canadian teenagers, oblivious of their surroundings, made an illegal border crossing from Canada into the United States during their searches. The Auschwitz Memorial had to ask gamers not to play on its grounds. A Bosnian nongovernmental agency is encouraging users to be wary of landmines left over from the 1990s conflict during their pursuits. Inadvertently, players are also stumbling into health.

Quite simply, a Pokémon is so tantalizing that it compels us to do the unimaginable: exercise. Deconditioned gamers griped about soreness after being forced to walk, run, and jump during their hunts. Since the app’s launch on July 6, its effect on physical activity is best captured through fitness tracker data. Users who mentioned Pokémon Go in their trackers were found to be walking 62.5 percent more than usual. “Pokémon Go” is being entered in workout logs by users of Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal, with individuals burning between 250-300 calories per session. This melding of fitness and gaming is unprecedented and encouraging at a time when more than one-third of the United States is obese. The condition alone contributes to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and even cancer. Though the app is unlikely to be a panacea for obesity, high blood pressure, or diabetes, it sheds the classic association of gaming with prolonged immobility and establishes a new and hopeful paradigm through its incorporation of fitness and a connection with the outdoors.

Apart from encouraging gamers to leave their homes and obtain some much needed vitamin D from the sun, Pokémon Go has also positively affected those afflicted with mental health diseases. Those grappling with anxiety and depression have noted an improvement in mood due to the app, which promotes social interaction. In addition, the hippocampus (associated with learning and memory) and reward pathways (associated with motivation and goal-orientation) of the brain, which are understimulated in depression and inevitably atrophy, are hyperstimulated during game play based on fMRI studies. The app thus becomes a neurological antidote to depression. Professor Daniel Freeman from the department of psychiatry at Oxford University notes: “It [Pokémon Go] could be used to refocus your attention away from threat by getting you immersed in engaging activity, or it could be used to present the things you fear for long enough to help your anxiety naturally decline. Combine the right psychological science and augmented reality and you’ll have a really powerful treatment tool.”

The Pokémon Go hysteria, which has even gotten the attention of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, can mean whatever we want it to mean. It can be considered a transient fad, an escape from the macabre headlines, or something more profound. In the wake of a Republican National Convention that was, as David Remnick describes, a “four-day-long Fox-fest, full of fear mongering, demagoguery, xenophobia, pandering, and raw anger,” President Barack Obama reminded us about the importance of seeing ourselves in others. In a world currently riven by class, religion, and race, Pokémon Go attempts to do just that as it unites disparate individuals and allows them to shed their toxic assumptions. In the context of our times, this may potentially be the app’s greatest contribution. And perhaps due to our insatiable desire to catch all the Pokémon, we may just stumble upon the elusive land of mutual respect, justice, and love.

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“Always be a fighter”: Sharon Jones reflects on her music, her health and her new documentary

Sharon Jones

Sharon Jones in “Miss Sharon Jones”

As anyone who’s seen Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings in concert will testify, it’s impossible to resist the charisma exuded by the soul/funk/R&B troupe. That’s mainly due to frontwoman Jones, who boasts an unstoppable, gospel-inspired voice and whirling dervish stage moves. At a summer 2015 concert when Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings opened for Tedeschi Trucks Band, I saw first-hand how the audience was completely, singlehandedly won over by the sheer force of her stage presence—moving from disinterested to totally spellbound within the span of the set.

A new documentary, “Miss Sharon Jones!” (which opened in theaters in New York City July 29 and in other cities after that) certainly contains plenty of mesmerizing concert footage. But the emotional, compelling film also follows Jones’ 2013 battle with stage two pancreatic cancer—chemo treatments and their aftermath, moving in with a friend to heal, balancing getting better with musical demands—and the impending launch of the Dap-Kings’ Grammy-nominated 2014 album, “Give The People What They Want.”

The idea for the documentary was floating around for a while before Jones’ manager approached her to see if she would be interested in being featured. Since she was dealing with such serious health issues, she was hesitant at first. “When [my manager] hit me up with it, of course I was like, ‘I don’t know, man,’” Jones tells Salon. “And then, you know, I thought about my fans, the relationship I have with my fans. And I think it would be cool to let my fans see what I’m going through. Maybe I’ll inspire someone who’s battling cancer to fight. And that’s when I chose to do it.”

Thankfully, Jones’ life story was in good hands: “Miss Sharon Jones!” director Barbara Kopple won Academy Awards for her documentaries “Harlan County USA” and “American Dream,” and also directed and produced the Dixie Chicks’ “Shut Up And Sing.” In fact, Jones can’t say enough good things about Kopple and crew—from “the love and the passion they have for doing movies” to the sensitivity they showed when dealing with her health. If she didn’t want something on camera, or wasn’t feeling well on a particular day, they respected her wishes and backed off. “I wasn’t into a reality show,” Jones says. “I didn’t want to [have] a camera up in my face when I wake up early in the morning, like the camera slept with me. Nah, I didn’t want that.” She laughs.

Still, “Miss Sharon Jones!” doesn’t sugarcoat much. For example, Jones talks about the racism and discrimination she faced growing up: During one particular striking moment while she’s visiting her hometown of North Augusta, South Carolina, she points out a shop with an owner who used to sell black kids rotten candy, and also taught his parrot to greet customers with racial slurs. A few scenes involving the Dap-Kings can also be tense, as they involve discussions about tight finances and what being off the road means for the group. In another moment, Jones gets mad at the band over changing holiday dinner plans. “What I wanted was to be with them that Thanksgiving,” she explains. “I wasn’t with my family; they were the only family I was with at the time.”

Jones admits she might have left this interaction out of the documentary had she seen it in advance, even though it concludes with them making up. “If you’ve been around me over the last 20 years, you know when I get angry, those things fly out of my mouth,” she says. “You wouldn’t see it anywhere else, but get me angry….” Jones dissolves into laughter, something that happens frequently in conversation. (That humor also crops up in “Miss Sharon Jones!”: At one point, Jones sees a motorist pulled over by police and cracks herself up by singing and modifying the Dap-Kings’ “Slow Down, Love” to fit the situation.)

These rougher edges ensure that while “Miss Sharon Jones!” is overall optimistic and positive, it’s also realistic. In fact, the documentary is so compelling because Jones confronts her health and residual grief with unsparing vulnerability. A scene where she gets her hair cut and then head shaved in preparation for chemotherapy is particularly moving, as the gravity of the situation hits her while the cameras are rolling. At another point, Jones gets deeply emotional and teary-eyed because her mother (who passed of cancer in 2013) wasn’t there to see her success.

“They caught me through a lot of pain,” she says. “The first time I saw [the documentary] was actually the first showing in Canada [at the Toronto International Film Festival]. To see how they captured that sadness… Every time I see it, I cry still to this day. I’ve seen it three times now, and I still cry. They really caught it. All of those hours of filming me, so much stuff they had—how they were able to break down and use enough film to show that part of my life in an hour and a half, was amazing. You see the love they put into that documentary and capturing me.”

In the end, “Miss Sharon Jones!” is all about the little moments of triumph in a longer, tough journey—those incremental steps forward to wellness, and the joy these smaller gestures bring. One of the most incredible scenes in the documentary depicts when she returns to church after a few months away. After briefly speaking in front of the congregation, Jones starts singing the gospel hymn “His Eyes Are On The Sparrow.” As the performance progresses, her delivery and voice grows stronger—more powerful, animated and overcome by the spirit. As attendees cheer, clap and encourage her, Jones finishes the song and starts dancing in the aisles and near the front of the church for a full minute.

Jones says this scene showed one of her first times singing since a major June 2013 operation called the Whipple procedure that entails removal of her gallbladder, part of her small intestine and head of the pancreas; in fact, she had just started walking again. “In order for me to shout, that was a whole miracle,” she says. “That was part of my energy coming back. That was part of me seeing, ‘All right. I got it. I got a little bit of it back.’ And it wasn’t me doing that as a show—I was really anointed and taken over. Those are a spiritual thing in church. For them to capture that…That wasn’t nothing they could say, ‘Could you do that over in a different position?’ That happened right there. That was natural.”

Accordingly, when people watch “Miss Sharon Jones!” there are a few things in particular she hopes people take from it. “Always be a fighter,” Jones says. “Follow your dreams. Just follow your heart. Because if you have something, a gift—don’t let anybody deter you and take it away. Because if you go on out and continue to do the right thing and just stay positive and have a good aura…I mean, really, that’s so important. You inspired people; people will feel that. Just keep on growing and be an inspiration.

“And I hope from that film someone who’s struggling, battling cancer can see a different light,” she continues. “You just enjoy the little time that you have if you think it’s a little time. And I have plenty more time, but I’m enjoying what I have, and that’s why I want to continue to get out here and perform.”

Jones and the Dap-Kings are currently out on the road, including dates opening for Hall & Oates. She’s also once again battling cancer and dealing with trying to find the right combination of chemo medicine to keep her balanced. “Medicine is supposed to be there to help me, not bring me down,” she says. “So some of the chemo medicine I’m taking now, I told the doctor, ‘I can’t take this chemo anymore,’ because it’s tearing me down. It’s getting to my legs, coming up my legs, my feet. … And the medication, if it got me all groggy and in la la land, and I can’t function, I don’t want to take that stuff. So it’s a lot I’m going through now. [But] they cut back on it, I feel a little better. And we’ll see what happens—they’ll have to find another medication, I’ll have to resort to something else. I’ll take that next step.”

Fittingly, however, she and the Dap-Kings recently released a driving song called “I’m Still Here,” which is appearing on the documentary’s official soundtrack, out August 19. The tune is a chronicle of Jones’ life, covering her early days in North Augusta, move to New York City as a child, tenure as a prison guard and, later, global travels with the Dap-Kings. But it’s also a deceptively simple statement of defiance: Despite people underestimating or discriminating against her—and despite “the big C”—the song declares she’s still fighting with all her might and moving forward.

“In my act, the reason why I have that shouting is because shouting to me is my connection to the church, is my connection to why I’m where I’m at,” she says. “I always feel that God blessed me with my gift. And being on the stage and being out here, to have so many people follow me—and knowing that out of all those thousands of people, [there are] different religions, different beliefs, people who don’t even believe in God. …But they still out there, and they listen to my story and they don’t want to shut me down. [They are] allowing me to be who I am and still be my fans. Those are true fans.

“Everything I do, my strength—why I keep going—is because of my fans. And because of my love for the music and the gift that God has given me. That movie caught all of that—I saw all of that in that little hour-and-a-half movie. I didn’t even know if I had a story that was able to go like that. That’s amazing to me.”

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Susan Faludi on gender, feminism and her own “Transparent” story: “We’re at a moment when identity is the battlefield”

Susan Faludi

Susan Faludi (Credit: Sigrid Estrada)

In her compelling new book “In the Darkroom, bestselling feminist writer Susan Faludi turns her critical eye from deconstructing gender myths inward, to her own life. The catalyst? Her estranged father, who, at the age of 76, sends her an email with the subject line “Changes.” Her father announces he has “had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that [she has] never been inside,” and is now a woman. “Love from your parent, Stefánie.”

“I devoted my life to studying gender issues, and then the question of the age—on gender—shows up in my own backyard,” Faludi said in a phone interview with Salon. “I felt that I couldn’t move forward honestly and engag[e] with questions of gender without admitting to my own experience—on some level [not doing so] would be dishonest.”

“In the Darkroom” encapsulates the approximately ten-year period that Faludi was able to get to know not just Stefánie but her father before her father’s death in 2015. In that decade of email correspondence and frequent visits in Stefánie’s native Hungary, we witness the dance between Faludi and Stefánie as they build their relationship—in the culminating pages, a literal dance, as Susan twirls her to the music of Michael Jackson at a trans party on the outskirts of Budapest. Susan, the intrepid feminist journalist who gently but persistently questions her father about his/her life—first as István Friedman, the Jewish boy growing up in Nazi-occupied Budapest, then as Steven Faludi, the violent and sometimes abusive father, and then as Stefánie Faludi, the trickster and coquettish feminine woman.

The acclaimed feminist, who has spent a lifetime fighting sexism and eviscerating gender myths, finds herself confronted by a woman who revels in gender stereotypes. “‘You write about the disadvantages of being a woman, but I’ve only found advantages,’” she tells Susan says very matter-of-factly. “‘Men have to help me. I don’t lift a finger. . . It’s one of the great advantages of being a woman.’” On another visit, Stefánie gleefully says, “It’s great being a woman… I look helpless, and everyone helps me. It’s a racket. Women get away with murder!” And, on another, she berates Susan for not having children: “This business of no children,’ she said. ‘It’s not normal…. Without children, your existence has no meaning…. Your books will stop selling. People will forget all about what you wrote.’”

Ironically, Stefánie repeatedly tells her daughter to write a book about her but is less than forthcoming with details. Information is piecemeal—not necessarily because Stefánie is ashamed of her past, but because parts of the past carry deep, traumatic wounds. Wounds born from living through the Holocaust, wounds born from the pressures of conforming to mid-century notions of American masculinity. “‘Women didn’t approve of me,’” Stefánie confesses to Susan. “‘I didn’t know how to fight and get dirty. I’m not muscular, I’m not athletic, I had a miserable life as a man.’”

Their reunion, shortly after that 2004 email, is at first extremely awkward. For Stefánie, her process of becoming a woman depended upon gender stereotypes; for Susan, her process of becoming a woman—and especially a feminist—depended upon her shattering those stereotypes. Bickering over gender essentialism betrays the book’s humor — sometimes disconcerting, sometimes dark.

The repeated bandying of the word “normal,” for example, conveys the tension between father and daughter. When Susan first visits her father, Stefánie asks her to leave her bedroom door open at night, after noticing Susan has been keeping the bedroom door shut. “Why?,” Susan inquires. “‘Because I want to be treated as a woman,’” Stefánie responds. “‘I want to be able to walk around without clothes and for you to treat it normally.’”

“‘Women don’t ‘normally’ walk around naked,’” Susan replies.

Faludi doesn’t care that her father is trans—what she does care about is her father’s unabashed appropriation of female stereotypes. “Change your clothes all you want,” she thinks when first meeting Stefánie. “You’re still the same person.” Her anger has nothing to do with her father’s change but with her concern that Stefánie is attempting to exonerate herself of being a horrible father by becoming a woman. “As I confronted, nearly four decades and nine time zones away, my father’s new self, it was hard for me to purge that image of the violent man from her new persona,” Faludi writes. “Was I supposed to believe the one had been erased by the other …? Could a new identity not only redeem but expunge its predecessor?”

“In the Darkroom” is most insightful when the narrative structure of the memoir reflects the dyadic conceptual logic of the book’s central theme: identity. Dialogue is what brings father and daughter together; dialogue reestablishes a connection. Dialogue is also what allows both Susan and Stefánie to develop more nuanced understandings of their identity markers. “As much as [the memoir] is about my father’s transgender journey, it’s not ultimately about transgenderism as it is about identity in its multiple forms, and that we’re at a moment when identity is the battlefield,” Faludi tells me in an interview.

What Faludi proves in “In The Darkroom” is that identity is the starting point, not the end point, of conversation. It is something that emerges and coheres out of dialogue, or interaction, between the self and the other. “For me,” Faludi says, “my identity seemed to take shape in resistance to what the culture was dictating my identity should be.”

“Perhaps it’s just my own perversity,” she laughs. “But others may have another similar identity formation.”

When asked if she would then define identity as a reaction formation, she pauses. “Well, I think that it’s very hard to live without categories… We all need some level of feeling tethered and belonging,” she says, noting how identity functions as way to build communities. “And yet so often, particularly modern identity seems to be about saying, OK, I’m going to put all my chips on this one identity marker, and that’s it. And now I don’t have to think about it anymore, or inspect myself anymore, or deal with any of my complicated internal psychology that is shaped, in fact, by the endless number of dynamics from one’s history to the culture you live in.”

“What was unusual about my father was that she was kind of like an identity zealot,” Faludi says. “Her life was spent up against one after another era defining identity crisis, whether it was being Jewish during the Holocaust, or trying to be the All-American suburban commuter dad during the depths of the postwar ’50s—the masculinity crisis era.” (A nod to her own study of the crisis of American masculinity,Stiffed.”) “Or going back to Hungary, and trying to fit in again. Or being a trans woman in a country that could not be less friendly to trans people…. My father’s life was uncanny [in] how it touches on all these identity fronts that have been consuming our world for at least a century.”

“My father and I certainly disagreed with how [she] and I defined womanhood,” Faludi admits. “I’m not fan of 1950s femininity. In the end, my father, while very extreme in her notions of clichéd femininity in the beginning, came to do something more in-between and indeterminate. At the very, very end, she started referring to herself as trans rather than ‘I am a woman.’”

“In that way, and in seeing my father take that trajectory, I affirmed my own feminism, which is based on gender being fluid, and that we exist on a continuum and that there is no one way of being a woman,” Faludi adds.

“I don’t buy into any kind of essentialism or singular identity,” Faludi explains. “And in that I think I’m pretty much in agreement with contemporary trans theorists that gender is on a spectrum, and that you can’t make these judgments on an identity through the lens of one person. No one is defined by one identity.”

In many ways, “In the Darkroom” is an exemplary feminist memoir because the story crystalizes around two women who face each other, and who in turn arrive to deeper, more nuanced understandings of themselves and one another through their engagement. As the late “The Feminist Difference” author Barbara Johnson wrote, “as long as a feminist analysis polarizes the world by gender, women are still standing facing men. Standing against men, or against patriarchy, might not be structurally so different from existing for it. . . But conflicts among feminists require women to pay attention to each other, to take each other’s reality seriously, to face each other.”

“This requirement that women face each other may not have anything erotic or sexual about it, but it may have everything to do with the eradication of the misogyny that remains within feminists, and with the attempt to escape the logic of heterosexuality,” wrote Johnson. “It places difference among women rather than exclusively between the sexes.”

When I read this quote to Faludi, she immediately saw the connection. “I love thinking about that quote in the context of my relationship with my father, which went from a childhood of reacting against him as the ur-patriarch to the two of us facing each other, talking about what it means to be a woman.” She continues, reflecting upon her father’s life, “the other side of this is an extension of this idea that Johnson talks about is also seeing the ways that men are trapped by a patriarchal construction.”

This observation holds true for Faludi’s father. Shedding the stifling strictures of masculinity enabled Stefánie’s own journey of release and reunion — not only with her daughter, but with herself. “Whatever the original reason she was conscious of her having or making her gender change in the end,” Faludi observes, “what mattered to her, and what I heard her say over and over again, was that she could communicate with people now. To break out of that isolation was a serious win for her.” Stefánie’s change was her liberation.

“My father is not the poster child for trans,” states Faludi. “We need more than poster children. Trans rights should not depend on every trans person being exemplary. Stories that are individual, that are particularistic, and distinctive — like my father was — are important.”

Source: New feed

Gig economy workers: Independent contractors or indentured servants?

Assembly Line Workers

(Credit: Reuters/Chris Keane)

This article originally appeared on Capital & Main.

What if millions of American workers were being denied health insurance, job security and the most basic legal protections, from overtime pay to workers compensation to the right to join a union? What if tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer revenues — money desperately needed to address everything from crumbling roads to education to health care — were never making it to local, state and federal treasuries? What if thousands of companies were violating the law with impunity?

That is exactly what is happening in the United States today, thanks to a rampant practice known as worker misclassification — illegally labeling workers as independent contractors when in fact they are employees under the law. In some cases it’s occurring in plain sight, in others it’s more hidden — but regardless of the circumstances, it is taking an enormous toll on the country.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), workers misclassified as independent contractors can be found in nearly every industry, and the phenomenon has grown considerably with the rise of the gig economy. Uber, the ride-hailing company, has become the poster child for worker misclassification, with numerous lawsuits alleging that Uber wrongly classifies its drivers as independent contractors. But Uber is hardly alone — examples of worker misclassification can be found in scores of new sectors, from housecleaners to technical workers.

Workers misclassified as independent contractors are also legion in established sectors of the economy, notably residential construction, in-home caregiving and the port trucking industry. Conditions for these workers have been compared to indentured servitude, and for good reason. Misclassification enables employers to get away with widespread wage theft and a range of other illegal practices.

In a 2015 report, EPI described the advantages to employers of misclassifying workers. “Employers who misclassify avoid paying payroll taxes and workers’ compensation insurance, are not responsible for providing health insurance and are able to bypass requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.” If this weren’t enough, the report continues, “misclassified workers are ineligible for unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, minimum wage and overtime, and are forced to pay the full FICA tax and purchase their own health insurance.”

How do employers get away with such violations? The answer is complex, involving anemic labor laws, lax enforcement of the protections that do exist and the savvy exploitation of both by companies in key industries. While some businesses misclassify their workers out of ignorance, others do it very deliberately, and have spent millions of dollars defending the practice.

A case in point is the port trucking industry, which was deregulated in the 1980s, leading to a proliferation of companies whose business model was predicated on the use of independent contractors. That model has resulted in a workforce of close to 75,000 truck drivers at ports across the country laboring in mostly abysmal conditions. Among the indignities endured by drivers are such neo-Dickensian schemes as negative paychecks — an inconceivable but well-documented occurrence in which drivers labor full time or more, yet actually owe money to the trucking companies they work for due to paycheck deductions for everything from truck payments to insurance to repairs.

In the last several years, port truck drivers and their labor, community and political allies have begun to successfully challenge misclassification, winning a series of legal victories, particularly in California. Every government agency that’s conducted an investigation into the practices of the port trucking industry — from the United States Department of Labor and National Labor Relations Board to the California Labor Commissioner and Economic Development Department — has determined that port drivers are employees, not independent contractors. The state’s labor commissioner alone has issued more than 300 decisions on misclassification of drivers in Southern California, and drivers have prevailed in every decision, winning over $35 million in back pay.

How can these successes be replicated and enhanced to end misclassification? Three strategies stand out:

Litigation: The successful track record in California has proven that misclassification is vulnerable to sustained litigation. An important factor is whether elected and appointed officials are willing to aggressively pursue or support such litigation — if not, the efforts will yield far less favorable results.

Policy changes: The enactment of policies that clamp down on misclassification, increase penalties and ban law-breaking companies from operating can have significant impact. However, as with litigation, this strategy depends on the presence of lawmakers willing to take on the issue.

Worker organizing: In Los Angeles, port truck drivers frustrated with the exploitative conditions in their industry have waged a multi-year campaign to expose the practice of misclassification. That effort, which has included multiple strikes, has been supported by a broad coalition of community groups — a potent combination that has played a crucial role in challenging the trucking industry’s “independent contractor” business model.

Taking on misclassification is important not just to workers, but to businesses and taxpayers as well. In the current system, law-abiding companies are forced to compete with low-road operators, creating an uneven playing field. Likewise, the cost to taxpayers in lost revenues from employers that illegally misclassify workers as independent contractors is enormous, cheating government out of resources that could and should be used for the common good.

Reining in worker misclassification and the abuse of so-called “independent contractors” is one of the more daunting challenges in taking on economic inequality. But any serious plan to address the nation’s economic divide must include an aggressive strategy to take on this costly epidemic.

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My tiny house reality: When the downsized life is the only life you can afford

Tiny House

(Credit: Liliana Ballen via Shutterstock)

If you go to Amazon and click the Crafts, Hobbies & Home category of books, you’ll notice two trends: 1) decluttering and 2) tiny-house living. The latter may have been jump-started by ‘Tiny House, Big Living’ on HGTV, but it is now a craze — a movement of people downsizing to live in homes no bigger than a child’s tree house. Within this crusade, there are smaller spin-off TV shows, endless self-help resources and even builders who have given up traditional home building to focus on minimalistic construction.

I’m familiar with the trend. A year ago, we bought a 900-square-foot ranch-style home on a slab. It’s one level, void of a second floor, attic, or basement. The Tiny Life blog states, “The typical American home is around 2,600 square feet, whereas the typical small or tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet.” On the surface, our home is not “tiny” by strict definition. But let’s break it down.

Approximately 250 square feet of the home is a sun room that was added on before the house went up for sale. Our bathroom is the size of a closet. If you’re even slightly overweight, you can barely fit on the toilet, which is crammed between two walls. Only one person can access the fridge, stove, sink and cabinets at any given time, or it becomes a wrestling match. There are RV kitchens bigger than ours. Closet space? Hardly. We store our seasonal clothes, Christmas decor and other items we do not use on a regular basis in several outbuildings — sheds, really. I cross my fingers every day that rodents do not discover our polaroid pictures, drawings from high school, a thousand small mementos I’ve saved in memory of the five children I brought into this world — even a tattered Mickey Mouse doll given to me by my brother in 1975. None of it is worth much in terms of dollars, but these keepsakes are irreplaceable in my heart, and they’re only one burrowed hole away from being ravaged.

Some would say we have it made; we’ve been able to downsize. I beg to differ. Within this small space there are five of us: me, my husband, one teen and two children under the age of 5. Add in a 120-pound dog, two cats and a parrot. Things are tight.

The house was a one-bedroom when we bought it, so we’ve had to get creative. We gave our teen the master bedroom and converted the sun room to our bedroom. The little kids are each in two smaller rooms which can hold a kid’s bed and bureau and not much more. There’s not enough room for all of their toys, so they spill over to the pantry, closets and a corner of our bedroom.

Every inch is utilized. Even the micro-sized hot water tank is stuffed into a small bedroom closet. It provides only enough hot water for a six-minute shower, and takes more than half an hour to regenerate. Someone always bathes in cold water, and that someone is usually me. I take one for the team every other day of the week.

From a financial perspective, I understand why people choose to downsize and opt for less square footage. I once owned a home that was 3,600 square feet and it was overwhelming. Cleaning took days, utilities cost a fortune, and many of the rooms sat empty. What good is a vacant room? It’s the equivalent of throwing money out the window.

But don’t be fooled. A larger home doesn’t always mean a more expensive home. I bought that 19th-century Victorian revival for $37,500 through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. In short — a HUD home. I didn’t qualify for a mortgage, so I used my savings and paid cash to buy the property. I drained the ceramic pig and every day thereafter I wished I had waited just a little longer for some other house to come onto the market. Smaller, with less upkeep perhaps? (Definitely not a tiny home. Let’s not go crazy.)

I’ve watched several episodes of “Tiny House, Big Living,” and I’ve also caught the TV show where people opt to live in opulent tree houses. A smaller home doesn’t always mean a less expensive home, obviously. Fancy architectural designs. Exquisite lighting. Imported décor. When did a movement that rallies around anti-consumerism and sustainability become so posh? So upscale and high-end? Scaling back is being exploited to encourage consuming more. It’s trending, among those who can consciously choose to be part of this movement. And for me, that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

I’ve never been an overly indulgent person, which I attribute to my upbringing. I grew up in a farmhouse built in the 1800s and moved by oxen in 1903 to a parcel of land my grandmother and grandfather owned. It provided 2,000 square feet of country living absent of luxury appliances, a stand-up shower and cable TV. We were far from poor, but we were not exactly vacationing at luxury resorts either. We lived within our means, a common declaration of anti-consumerism of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I had friends, however, who were not so fortunate. Back then, a tiny home was typically the domain of a low-income household or a family forced into smaller living quarters like trailers in order to make ends meet. “Whimsical” did not describe the boxed-up conditions in which they lived.

How many people who are now part of the tiny house movement have ever lived in a tiny place not by choice? Not because it’s fun or trendy, but out of necessity? My choices of where and how I live have always been driven by economics. But if I had to choose, tiny home living is not a choice I would make again. Not willingly. With a family of five, I would’ve preferred a house between 1,500 and 1,800 square feet — roomy, yet manageable. I’d love for the kids to have some freedom. They spend more time at the dining room table and on the living room floor than they do anywhere else in the house. I’m also a small business owner and freelance writer. It would be nice to have an office. Four glass patio doors separate the sun room (our bedroom) from the living room, and the room is enclosed in bare walls, no insulation. We’re not voyeurs, for heaven’s sake, and we do live in Maine. Winters are cold. I’d love a real place to sleep — and stuff.

Many Americans are in the same boat. They’re not choosing minimalism. They’re forced to downsize for economic reasons. According to The Small House Society, for those who choose tiny home living, “it’s not a movement about people claiming to be ‘tinier than thou’ but rather people making their own choices toward simpler and smaller living however they feel best fits their life.” We didn’t have that choice. I lost my job and our household income dwindled. We settled out of necessity and because of financial constraints, not because we are advocates of a cool movement or wanted to live with less.

The median existing single-family home price was $241,000 in May, for a dwelling of approximately 2,100 square feet. Our home-buying budget was $100,000, which doesn’t buy much in the United States — especially in the Northeast. So we had two options: buy a larger home in need of a ton of work or pick a small home in decent shape. We didn’t have an extra dollar for renovations, so we went with small over fixer-upper.

In the year we’ve been here, we’ve learned the meaning of sacrifice and have mastered the art of using our inside voices — because a decibel too loud and all your secrets and sounds become shared experiences. While we’re not technically part of the tiny-house movement, we are still living a tiny home lifestyle. It may not be a long-term settlement, but I’ve come to accept the smallness of our surroundings. After all, a home is what and where you make it.

But, next time, I’d like to choose.

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The Revenge of Monoculture: The Internet gave us more choices, but the mainstream won anyway

Justin Bieber Televisions

(Credit: Xavier Arnau via iStock/AP/Reuters/Salon)

Is it gone? Do we miss it? Do we want it back? Are we glad it’s history? I’m talking about the so-called monoculture, and I’m not sure whether we were supposed to be nostalgic or gleeful about its so-called passing.

The fight over the monoculture is a funny, ambiguous one: Some have argued that having a shared Anglo-American culture gives us a communal sense of belonging together, sharing concerns and values at a time when politics, ethnicity and religion often divide us. Being able to share in the wonder of a groundbreaking new Beatles album, to exalt over the release of “Purple Rain,” to welcome a big summer movie, was a sign of a culture that worked, where people listen to each other and connect through their tastes. Figures as different as Robert Christgau — the Silent Generation journalist who helped invent rock criticism — and Touré — the Gen Xer who writes on a wide range of topics, especially black music — have lamented the loss of this kind of shared experience. Touré wrote about what he calls Massive Musical Moments this way:

In these Moments, an album becomes so ubiquitous it seems to blast through the windows, to chase you down until it’s impossible to ignore it. But you don’t want to ignore it, because the songs are holding up a mirror and telling you who we are at that moment in history.

These sorts of Moments can’t be denied. They leave an indelible imprint on the collective memory; when we look back at the year or the decade or the generation, there’s no arguing that the album had a huge impact on us. It’s pop music not just as private joy, but as a unifier, giving us something to share and bond over.

But cyber-utopians looked at the downside of this kind of cultural unity and offered something else: Instead of the lockstep world of three networks, a handful of radio stations and a limited number of news sources, the Internet would offer a wild range of options. Chris Anderson’s book “The Long Tail” was only one of the celebratory works that made it sound like an eclectic digital paradise was inevitable and imminent: Every bit of niche culture would find its audience, and the idea of the mainstream — all that obligatory stuff everyone was expected to like — would wither away. Why listen to tired AOR playlists and watch the same old sitcoms when manga, K-pop, Nordic metal, comedy offerings on YouTube and infinite indie everything would be available around the clock, to anyone with an Internet connection? As Anderson wrote:

An analysis of the sales data and trends from these services and others like them shows that the emerging digital entertainment economy is going to be radically different from today’s mass market. If the 20th-century entertainment industry was about hits, the 21st will be equally about misses.

With “diversity” a rallying cry for most on the liberal left, this fit what about half the audience wanted. Since many conservatives were urging a breakdown of the “mainstream media,” there seemed to be something in here for almost everyone. (Silicon Valley’s Peter Thiel talked in his speech at the Republican National Convention about the “ossified monoculture” that his hero Donald Trump would help to defeat.) And if you are a Poptimist — the strain of music critic who exalts popular taste over stuffy old critical biases — the disappearance of the monoculture is a good thing, too: It sets taste free. Who can object to freedom?

Looking at the summer of 2016, it’s still hard to determine whether a monoculture is something we want or we don’t. (In agriculture, the issue is similarly vexing.) But one thing that’s becoming clear: While there is plenty of diversity — of opinion, of musical style, of offerings in television and movies — the monoculture is as strong as ever. Whether it’s better or worse is a whole other question, but the mainstream, rather than fragmenting, has reinforced itself in a big way.

So while it’s possible, as it’s always been, to retreat from pop culture and rely entirely, say, on a diet of 18th century Baroque piano music, Japanese anime and “Twilight Zone” reruns, the gravitational pull of the mainstream is strong. Log onto Twitter, and be drawn into sports culture whether you want to or not: Not just from notifications, but from the NFL games that will stream there.

How about movies? Of the 10 highest earning films of 2016, the top nine are either kids movies or comic book properties. The last one — “Central Intelligence” — is a comedy-action movie with blockbuster actor Dwayne Johnson. These are also the movies that get talked about online, in all but the artsiest magazines, in the ads that probably take up more space in your newspaper than the reviews do.

Meanwhile, even the most serious actors — Ben Affleck, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr. — are devoting a lot of their time to superhero films and action movies. We’ve barely had time to recover from Affleck’s appearance in “Batman v. Superman” before we get the chance to see his cameo in “Suicide Squad,” to catch his starring role wielding a gun in “The Accountant” and to see the new trailer for “The Justice League.” Whether or not you like Affleck’s sometimes drowsy and wooden style, this is a guy who made his name with indies by Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith.

What else happened this week? The pop culture news that has broken through the onslaught of the political conventions has mostly involved Comic-Con, which attracted 130,000 people to San Diego this year and which movie studios ignore at their peril.

To be clear, there are all kinds of “culture” coming right now, including a wide variety of music. But the media coverage of music this week — the way most people hear about what’s being released and what matters — was mostly about MTV’s Video Music Awards. The VMAs have nominated, over the years, Herbie Hancock for “Rockit,” Cindi Lauper for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Paul Simon, Talking Heads, the Verve, Beck, D’Angelo… Stylistically, that’s all over the place.

This year, it’s Adele, Beyoncé, Drake, Justin Bieber and Kanye West: Kiddie pop, and superstar R&B. Some of these videos are of high quality — Beyoncé’s “Formation” is the centerpiece of the aesthetically and politically daring “Lemonade” and would be nominated in any year. But the only surprise here is that Taylor Swift didn’t get nominated. And Swift is so huge — and celebrity so dominating a force in both culture and the way we talk about it — that we don’t have to look far to find her. There she is, in the video for Kanye West’s “Famous”… and in the articles about Taylor Swift being snubbed by the VMAs this year. She’s here even when she’s not here.

“Many people have categorized the 2016 presidential election as a referendum on the very soul of America,” Amy Zimmerman wrote in a Daily Beast story about the awards, topped with a picture of Swift. “But I would argue that nothing has illustrated the eternal, nationwide battle between good and evil quite like Taylor Swift and Kanye West’s seven-year beef.” She’s kidding, in part, but plenty of people who aren’t kidding see things this way.

So are we better off than we used to be? That’s hard to say. But if the mainstream used to mean AOR acts like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, “uplifting” Oscar movies alongside Spielberg-style action films, and bland network programming, only one medium has broadened drastically in the Internet age. Television is not only more “diverse” — both racially and in terms of style — and smarter, it’s got a discourse around it that debates “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” and “Empire” and everything else. At the Emmys, “Transparent” and “Master of None” and “The Americans” will all be in the mix.

But when it comes to the movies and films that make money and draw attention, the list gets pretty thin. It’s songs by corporate-branded celebrities (at various degrees of quality) and comic-book movies. 

So why did this happen, when it was supposed to go the other way? Like any cultural change, it likely comes from a swirl of economic, technological and sociological factors that we’ll only understand fully in retrospect. History shows that capitalism tends towards monopoly unless some counterforce pushes back, and the internet has not yet found its Teddy Roosevelt. The biggest musicians and actors bombard us with tweets, puffy magazine stories and online marketing until their “brands” are ubiquitous. But part of it may be the Paradox of Choice: If everything is available, all the time, we’re likely to get overwhelmed and just fall back on what we know already (or what’s been the most aggressively marketed to us.) If you’ve ever stared at an enormous, multi-page menu and decided to get the burger or the steak, you know how this works.

The internet’s near-infinite offerings are not the only cause, but it’s worth looking at what’s happened since it arrived. We’ve always had popular and fringe, overexposed and undersung, but the proportion has changed. In 1986, 31 songs hit number one, and came from 29 different bands or artists. By the period from January 2008 to September 2012 — we’re into the first years of digital dominance — half the number one songs are turned out by just six artists. (That’s Katy Perry, Rihanna, Flo Rida, The Black Eyed Peas, Adele and Lady Gaga.) New York magazine calls it “the monopoly at the top.”

And the changes in online media have followed similar contours. “The top 10 web sites accounted for 31 percent of US pageviews in 2001, 40 percent in 2006, and about 75 percent in 2010,” Michael Wolff wrote in Wired. Now with Facebook increasingly the way most Americans get their news, the faux-consensus will be even tighter.

So we might not all buy the same album anymore. But the whole country was talking about the latest “Star Wars” last winter, and that seems likely to repeat for at least the next few years. Just as television news — whether on the left or the right — has picked up the hectoring tone of Fox News broadcasts, most online media has borrowed the snark of Gawker. It’s pretty clear that Taylor, Kanye, Bieber, the Kardashians and numerous superheroes — most of which present themselves as misunderstood underdogs — will continue to be impossible to escape. We can pretty much bet what kinds of movies will dominate media coverage and the box office next year, and it won’t be hard to guess who will produce the most celebrated videos and best-selling songs of 2017.

It may be an improvement over the Eagles. But if this isn’t monoculture, I don’t know what is.

 

 

 

 

 

Source: New feed

The amazing life of Margaret Sanger, “Our Lady of Birth Control”: “I was intrigued that such a great do-gooder was also quite a bad girl in private”

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger appears before a Senate committee for federal birth-control legislation in Washington, D.C. on March 1, 1934. (Credit: AP)

With Hillary Clinton’s historic Democratic party nomination still fresh in our minds, it’s now more important than ever that we honor and remember those who came before, who fought and worked and organized to make America a better, fairer place for the so-called “fairer sex.” Sure, we’ve come a long way (baby), but Clinton’s clinch is only one glittering milestone in a long and shining legacy of hard-won battles. Before women could dream of sending one of their own to the Oval Office (or of voting at all), they dreamed of controlling their bodies, and reclaiming their own flesh from an endless cycle of pregnancy, birth and, all too often, death.

That war continues to rage, but without the contributions of pioneers like Margaret Sanger, we’d still be stuck in the trenches. Born in 1879 to Irish parents, she was a complicated woman, one who’s best remembered as the tireless birth control advocate who scandalized the country, energized a generation of women and founded the nation’s first birth control clinic, planting the seed for the organization that would eventually become Planned Parenthood. She was also a radical activist, a mother, a wife, a nurse and an extremely savvy media wrangler who excelled at stirring up publicity for her cause (and landed herself in jail a few times as a result). Sanger’s refusal to back down or be silenced is echoed in the steadfast approach of Planned Parenthood itself, even as the problem she labored to correct — American women’s government-sanctioned lack of bodily autonomy — remains ingrained in our supposedly modern society.

In her new graphic novel, “Our Lady of Birth Control” (Soft Skull Press), artist Sabrina Jones pulls back the curtain and beckons readers into the heart of Sanger’s story in an effort to humanize the woman behind the movement. Her bold, stark drawing style accentuates Sanger’s own boldness and brazen, joyous lack of delicacy. Sanger was a force of nature, a driven and determined fighter who changed the world, but, as Jones shows, it was far from easy going. The author deftly interweaves painstakingly researched, lovingly detailed segments of Sanger’s biography with her own narrative as feminist activist who came of age during the sexual revolution of the ’70s and has grappled with her role in the struggle.

Sanger’s own legacy is complicated, too, fraught with accusations of racism and a perceived championing of eugenics. Understanding 19th century viewpoints through a 21st century prism requires a generous amount of perspective, of course, and this story is no exception. That an outspoken, sexually liberated woman on a mission would rack up reams of bad press during (and after) her lifetime is less of a surprise than a given, but Jones does an admirable job of laying out and patiently dismantling the accusations leveled against Sanger and of explaining the contemporary social circumstances that birthed them.

It’s a deeply personal book for both parties, but the desperately human circumstances it describes — love, work, identity, autonomy, perseverance, death — are all too universal. I’d rank “Our Lady of Birth Control” up there with Kate Evans’ Red Rosa as one of 2016’s most crucial politically-charged graphic novels, and I recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the women’s rights movement — especially if you’re #WithHer, or more fittingly, #AgainstHim.

I got in touch with Sabrina Jones to find out more about the work that went into “Our Lady of Birth Control,” President Teddy Roosevelt’s surprising reaction to Sanger’s crusade, the current state of birth control access in this country — and how far we still have to go.

In the book, you share a few anecdotes from your personal activities in the women’s rights movement; without giving too much away, can you explain how you became involved in the struggle, and how that led you to Margaret Sanger?

As a teenager in the 1970s, I fully expected to enjoy the fruits of women’s liberation and the sexual revolution that had thrown off the shackles of the repressive post-war era. Even my mother shuddered at the mention of the dreaded 1950s. Imagine my shock when Ronald Reagan was elected on a wave of nostalgia for the bad old days! Born-again Christians mobilized, advancing legislation to repeal Roe v. Wade. My initiation into activism was with a group of pro-choice artists under the banner of Carnival Knowledge. We made interactive games and performances about reproductive rights, which we presented at street fairs, demonstrations, community centers and galleries. It was thrilling for me, barely out of art school, to throw my energies into the fray of the culture wars. But the carnival was cumbersome and labor-intensive, and it faltered as my heroic new mentors began to burn out.

Meanwhile, the editors of this anti-nuclear comic book called World War 3 Illustrated asked me do a comic strip about the battles over abortion. They were branching out to cover broader issues, and had seen Carnival Knowledge. I had never drawn comics, and rarely read any since outgrowing Archie and Veronica, but I thought WW3 shared many of the virtues of the carnival without its disadvantages. The comic book, like a carnival, is a user-friendly popular medium that can be a non-intimidating vehicle for a social message, but it is cheap and much more portable. Besides, I was not a natural performer, so I was much happier at the drawing table.

Years later, working on comics about the radical movements of the early 20th century, I fell under the spell of Margaret Sanger. Of all the radical ferment in Greenwich Village in the teens, Sanger’s fight to legalize birth control may have had the greatest impact on how we live now. She was a working class heroine, a racy bohemian and a tough-as-nails charmer who got results. With her story, I came full circle to the issues of women’s health and sexual liberation that had first motivated me to make political art.

How did you first become interested in creating historical graphic novels? It’s a really interesting niche and perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the phrase “graphic novel.”

True. The most famous “graphic novels” are actually memoirs: “Maus,” “Persepolis,” “Fun Home” … and some of my personal favorites: “The Amazing True Story of A Teenage Single Mom,” “Pyongyang,” “The Photographer.” Oh, the pressure to have such an interesting life! Or to have the guts to be as honest as Harvey Pekar, Julie Doucet, Aline Kominsky Crumb. When I was asked to contribute to “Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World,” I discovered a wealth of stories and characters, free for the taking, without having to go out and get into trouble or bare the tawdriest corners of my soul. From the comfort of my studio, I could resurrect the historical rebels they didn’t teach us about in school. The down side of immersing myself in the bold exploits of my predecessors is that makes my own life look like the intersection of boring and cowardly.

What was the research process like for this project? How long did it take you to finish the book? It must’ve been quite an undertaking, given the amount of detail you go into and the complexity of the subject matter.

Once Margaret Sanger became the face of the birth control movement, she used her renown to advance the cause, publishing a ghost-written autobiography that lacks all the juicy bits and difficult traits that make her so fascinating to me. A couple of good biographies and a three-volume edition of her papers — letters, diaries, as well as speeches and articles — fleshed out the picture. Due to the skanky image of contraception at the time, Sanger made a strategic decision not to mention her enthusiastic embrace of free love, her multiple affairs and her long-sought divorce. The public Mrs. Sanger was impeccably ladylike, even soft-spoken, and emphasized the desperate need for birth control on behalf of the impoverished wives and mothers she cared for as a nurse. Devoted to giving women control over their own fertility, she was a neglectful mother and a faithless wife. I was intrigued that such a great do-gooder was also quite a bad girl in private.

I collected addresses where Sanger lived or worked in New York, and gazed up at the buildings that still exist on 5th Avenue and 16th Street. The now-replaced storefront where she opened her first outlaw clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, 100 years ago this October 16th, is especially resonant. The neighborhood is still low-income, although African Americans have replaced the East European and Italian immigrants Margaret served. She succeeded in legalizing birth control, but it failed to eradicate poverty as she hoped.

My work took about three years from conception to publication. Since the first three publishers I approached thought it was such a bad idea, I had the leisure of working without a deadline.

You did an excellent job of showing how interconnected the fight for women’s rights was with radical leftist political movements and the larger labor movement during Sanger’s time — a connection that all too often feels reduced to an afterthought in the current wave of pop feminism. How can we as feminists work to reforge that strong connection with our comrades in labor?

We have to be our own comrades, and acknowledge that we are mostly workers, too. As a union member (United Scenic Artists Local 829 — we paint scenery in the entertainment industry), I learned firsthand that unions are among the few places where men and women are paid equally for the same work. Problems arise when entire growing fields are feminized, like home health care, and consequently undervalued.

If, by pop feminism, you mean the idea that sexiness is powerful, then I’m afraid diamonds are still a girl’s best friend. The current reverence for entrepreneurs, the idea that we must all become cutthroat self-starters, is unrealistic about human nature. Where’s the respect for the average person who conscientiously does her job? Other than her entirely self-motivated career as an activist and organization builder, Margaret Sanger made her living in two conventionally female occupations: nursing and marriage. Her second marriage was far more profitable than her first. Even visionaries have to be pragmatic to get ahead.

Teddy Roosevelt’s quote, where he equated birth control to “race suicide” amongst “selfish,””cowardly” women of the “better classes” stood out — Roosevelt has such a cuddly image that most Americans don’t even know about his white supremacist views. Where did you come across that tidbit?

Margaret dropped pointed references to him in her speeches. Our former president, namesake of the Teddy bear, believed that if women had the choice, we would not have enough babies for the survival of the race. This concern for “race suicide” was often couched in general terms that could refer to the human race, but elsewhere it was clear that he was worried that “native born” Americans, who were in his time predominantly Protestants of Northern European heritage, would be outnumbered by more prolific immigrants, who were more often Catholic or Jewish, from Southern and Eastern Europe. Sound familiar?

Here’s [Roosevelt]: “If Americans of the old stock lead lives of celibate selfishness (whether profligate or merely frivolous or objectless matters little), or if the married are afflicted by that base fear of living which… forbids them to have more than one or two children, disaster awaits the nation. It is not well for a nation to import its art and its literature; but it is fatal for a nation to import its babies,” from Metropolitan Magazine, October 1917.

He further derided “birth control propagandists” as “decadent” and “immoral.” After handily rebutting him in the December issue, Margaret delighted in telling audiences that she received plenty of mail requesting birth control information from Roosevelt’s neck of the woods in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Sanger was a polarizing figure, as we especially see in the section about the enduring controversy around her relationship with race and eugenics. It’s never easy to reconcile a revered individual with their mistakes or unenlightened views; how did you approach this section, and what was the main message you sought to convey?

Google “Margaret Sanger and race,” and brace yourself for a horror show of racism, genocide, the KKK and Hitler. Almost none of it is true, and that fraction which is factual is deceptively out of context. At Sanger’s first trial for offering banned contraceptive information to Jewish and Italian immigrants in Brooklyn, she was accused of aiming to eliminate the Jewish race. By the same twisted logic, her efforts to provide access to birth control to women of color in Harlem, North Carolina, and Tennessee are now cited as evidence that she wished to eliminate African Americans.

Sanger fought so that all women, especially those with low incomes, would have the knowledge and ability to make their own decisions about bearing children. Her outreach to the African American community had the support of leaders like W. E. B. Dubois, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Mary McLeod Bethune. It was years later that opponents of abortion spread false accusations of racism, in order to alienate people of color from the pro-choice movement and Planned Parenthood. In fact, Sanger actively discouraged abortion, which she hoped to avoid through birth control, and Planned Parenthood never performed abortion during her lifetime.

Sanger’s association with eugenics is trickier to understand, because we must realize that eugenics in the 1920s appealed to people across the political spectrum, was taught in 75 percent of U. S. colleges, and was considered far more respectable and scientific than contraception. Sanger sought the endorsement of doctors, scientists and academics to validate the birth control movement, which many associated with free love and anarchism.  She wanted the eugenics movement to support birth control because she claimed it would lead to fewer, healthier babies, and reduce poverty, child labor and prostitution. She never supported coercive, race-based methods.

But her overtures were largely rebuffed by the pro-natalist eugenicists who feared, like Theodore Roosevelt, that birth control would end up in the wrong hands. After the horrors of Nazism, it’s hard to convince people that there was once a kinder, gentler interpretation of eugenics, but then Margaret had an equally hard time convincing eugenicists that her decadent, immoral methods would help improve the human race. And if you don’t believe me, Planned Parenthood has an excellent document online called “Opposition Claims Against Margaret Sanger.”

The amount of government opposition to birth control and Sanger’s work was intense during her lifetime, and it’s sad to see how little has changed in a century. Why do you think birth control’s modern opponents are still so afraid of women’s sexuality?

Now we have employers invoking “religious freedom” to deny birth control coverage in employee health plans. Before we even get into the specter of unfettered female sexuality, this issue betrays a profound disrespect for labor. Healthcare is not a gift from our employer. It is a benefit we earn with our work. Hobby Lobby, Little Sisters of the Poor, I agree that it’s none of their business whether their employees use contraception. Skyrocketing healthcare costs and the stranglehold of the insurance companies have empowered these employers to interfere in our private lives. If we had a real national health plan, the fight would probably continue in the halls of Congress. The desire to control women’s bodies is a primal expression of male power, rooted in questions of paternity. A cute baby peers from a billboard in my Brooklyn neighborhood, over the caption, “Does he really have his father’s eyes?” DNA testing. I imagine fathers dropping in on visiting day to make sure they haven’t been suckered into caring for someone else’s kid. But practical considerations aside, sex is powerful, and we play with fire at our own risk. All the more reason to take precautions.

What (or whom) would you consider to be the modern equivalent to Comstock and his repressive “obscenity” law?

[Indiana Gov.] Mike Pence, who I confess I hadn’t heard of before he was picked as Republican vice-presidential candidate, turns out to be a driving force behind the movement to defund Planned Parenthood, sponsoring legislation in congress as far back as 2007. Laws he passed in his home state have shut down clinics across Indiana. He tried to redefine rape as “forcible rape” to limit abortion funding. Restrictive regulations closed down many abortion clinics in Texas before the Supreme Court struck down the law. Since the anti-choice movement failed to repeal Roe v. Wade, they’ve concentrated on chipping away at access to it.  The Supreme Court decision may have been ahead of its time, so we are still struggling to defend it. It’s not enough to change the law. We have to engage the culture to accept women’s right to control our own bodies and lives.

After spending so much time with her story, and now seeing the way that Planned Parenthood is still — still! — under attack, what do you think it’ll take for birth control to finally be accepted and legally protected as a right, a necessity and a choice that should be available to every person?

Even though birth control is infinitely better and more widely available than it was when Sanger started out, we still have many unintended pregnancies. Most of the fire against Planned Parenthood is aimed at abortion, not birth control, but we cannot separate the two. We are not perfect, and neither are all the methods. The attacks, whether they use laws or guns, not only limit access to services, they create a sense of danger and stigma around reproductive care.

When a woman is embarrassed to mention contraception to her partner, we are in danger. When she feels guilty about making plans to protect her body, we have failed. When she is blamed for being the victimized by rape or other sexual aggression, we need to stand up for her.

Shame and denial contribute to women’s lapses in self-care, but we also make mistakes. The ferocious political climate and self-righteous posturing about pregnancy make it hard to admit that we do make mistakes, in using birth control and in choosing our partners. When I was an adolescent, the sexual revolution beckoned us to a pleasure garden that turned out to have its share of thorns, and now young girls are under immense pressure to be “hot” before they can handle it. For this we should be punished? Young people need compassion and support as they navigate a new social landscape.

What do you think are the most effective ways that modern birth control advocates can continue the fight Sanger started?

As an artist, my weapons are the pen and the brush. I hope my stories and images affirm our right to experience sex, love and relationships in whatever form is right for us. Margaret may have buttoned up her libido in public, but her passionate spirit drove her to fight for all of our rights.

I’d like to see our country follow the example of Colorado, where a recent experiment with free, long-acting birth control has had fantastic results. Teen birth and abortion rates have dropped dramatically, and millions of Medicaid dollars were saved.

I am also very impressed by the networks of abortion funds and volunteers who host women who need to travel for healthcare because their local clinics are shut. But better that the clinics remain open and fully funded for all women! Support Planned Parenthood and elect more women and other pro-choice candidates.

Your quote about “the perfect confluence of art, activism and love” really struck me; it’s a beautifully simple but effective way to sum up some of the guiding principles of Sanger’s life’s work, and to wrap up your own journey. Do you view creating this book as a political act, or more of an act of personal fulfillment (or, as I suspect, both)?

Now that I see those words out of their original context, I wish it were used to describe my book! Ironically, that moment of “perfect confluence” soon hit the rocks, and I was once again scrambling for balance. I held back from activism for fear that it would keep me from the studio. Getting up at dawn to defend clinics can take a bite out of your creative energy. Demonstrations weren’t as exciting as I remembered, maybe because the police got so good at fencing us in. Instead of claiming the streets, we’re taken for a walk between barricades. It was the opposite of empowering.  By the time Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter came along, proving the impact of a robust protest movement, I had come to terms with my place at the drawing table. I no longer feel conflicted about skipping a protest to stay home and draw, because making comics about social justice is the best way for me to contribute.

By now you’ve profiled larger-than-life figures like Isadora Duncan, Margaret Sanger, the Wobblies and numerous others—who’s next on the docket for you?

I’m working on a short strip for World War 3 Illustrated, the radical comics magazine that has fostered my comics since the beginning. It’s called “Hear that Whistle Blow.” It’s about the trains full of crude oil that roll through our communities, putting them in the path of potential disaster. The ideas that are calling to me for the next project are still too farfetched and tender to reveal in print. I’ll just say that my next book may be a lot more personal, and combine history, memoir and travelogue.

Source: New feed

America is the No. 1 arms dealer: Yet why do trends in weapon exports remain in relative obscurity?

Nighclub Shooting Assault Weapons

FILE — In this Aug. 15, 2012 file photo, three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, Calif. While the guns look similar, the bottom version is illegal in California because of its quick reload capabilities. Omar Mateen used an AR-15 that he purchased legally when he killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub over the weekend President Barack Obama and other gun control advocates have repeatedly called for reinstating a federal ban on semi-automatic assault weapons that expired in 2004, but have been thwarted by Republicans in Congress. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,file) (Credit: AP)

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

When American firms dominate a global market worth more than $70 billion a year, you’d expect to hear about it. Not so with the global arms trade. It’s good for one or two stories a year in the mainstream media, usually when the annual statistics on the state of the business come out.

It’s not that no one writes about aspects of the arms trade. There are occasional pieces that, for example, take note of the impact of U.S. weapons transfers, including cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, or of the disastrous dispensation of weaponry to U.S. allies in Syria, or of foreign sales of the costly, controversial F-35 combat aircraft. And once in a while, if a foreign leader meets with the president, U.S. arms sales to his or her country might generate an article or two. But the sheer size of the American arms trade, the politics that drive it, the companies that profit from it, and its devastating global impacts are rarely discussed, much less analyzed in any depth.

So here’s a question that’s puzzled me for years (and I’m something of an arms wonk): Why do other major U.S. exports — from Hollywood movies to Midwestern grain shipments to Boeing airliners — garner regular coverage while trends in weapon exports remain in relative obscurity? Are we ashamed of standing essentially alone as the world’s number one arms dealer, or is our Weapons “R” Us role such a commonplace that we take it for granted, like death or taxes?

The numbers should stagger anyone. According to the latest figures available from the Congressional Research Service, the United States was credited with more than half the value of all global arms transfer agreements in 2014, the most recent year for which full statistics are available. At 14 percent, the world’s second largest supplier, Russia, lagged far behind. Washington’s “leadership” in this field has never truly been challenged. The U.S. share has fluctuated between one-third and one-half of the global market for the past two decades, peaking at an almost monopolistic 70 percent of all weapons sold in 2011. And the gold rush continues. Vice Admiral Joe Rixey, who heads the Pentagon’s arms sales agency, euphemistically known as the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, estimates that arms deals facilitated by the Pentagon topped $46 billion in 2015 and are on track to hit $40 billion in 2016.

To be completely accurate, there is one group of people who pay remarkably close attention to these trends — executives of the defense contractors that are cashing in on this growth market. With the Pentagon and related agencies taking in “only” about $600 billion a year — high by historical standards but tens of billions of dollars less than hoped for by the defense industry — companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Dynamics have been looking to global markets as their major source of new revenue.

In a January 2015 investor call, for example, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson was asked whether the Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration and five other powers might reduce tensions in the Middle East, undermining the company’s strategy of increasing its arms exports to the region. She responded that continuing “volatility” in both the Middle East and Asia would make them “growth areas” for the foreseeable future. In other words, no worries. As long as the world stays at war or on the verge of it, Lockheed Martin’s profits won’t suffer — and, of course, its products will help ensure that any such “volatility” will prove lethal indeed.

Under Hewson, Lockheed has set a goal of getting at least 25 percent of its revenues from weapons exports, and Boeing has done that company one better. It’s seeking to make overseas arms sales 30 percent of its business.

Good news from the Middle East (if you’re an arms maker)

Arms deals are a way of life in Washington. From the president on down, significant parts of the government are intent on ensuring that American arms will flood the global market and companies like Lockheed and Boeing will live the good life. From the president on his trips abroad to visit allied world leaders, to the secretaries of state and defense, to the staffs of U.S. embassies, American officials regularly act as salespeople for the arms firms. And the Pentagon is their enabler. From brokering, facilitating and literally banking the money from arms deals to transferring weapons to favored allies on the taxpayers’ dime, it is in essence the world’s largest arms dealer.

In a typical sale, the U.S. government is involved every step of the way. The Pentagon often does assessments of an allied nation’s armed forces in order to tell them what they “need” — and, of course, what they always need is billions of dollars in new U.S.-supplied equipment. Then the Pentagon helps negotiate the terms of the deal, notifies Congress of its details and collects the funds from the foreign buyer, which it then gives to the U.S. supplier in the form of a defense contract. In most deals, the Pentagon is also the point of contact for maintenance and spare parts for any U.S.-supplied system. The bureaucracy that helps make all of this happen, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, is funded from a 3.5 percent surcharge on the deals it negotiates. This gives it all the more incentive to sell, sell, sell.

And the pressure for yet more of the same is always intense, in part because the weapons makers are careful to spread their production facilities to as many states and localities as possible. In this way, they ensure that endless support for government promotion of major arms sales becomes part and parcel of domestic politics.

General Dynamics, for instance, has managed to keep its tank plants in Ohio and Michigan running through a combination of add-ons to the Army budget — funds inserted into that budget by Congress even though the Pentagon didn’t request them — and exports to Saudi Arabia. Boeing is banking on a proposed deal to sell 40 F-18s to Kuwait to keep its St. Louis production line open and is currently jousting with the Obama administration to get it to move more quickly on the deal. Not surprisingly, members of Congress and local business leaders in such states become strong supporters of weapons exports.

Though seldom thought of this way, the U.S. political system is also a global arms distribution system of the first order. In this context, the Obama administration has proven itself a good friend to arms exporting firms. During Obama’s first six years in office, Washington entered into agreements to sell more than $190 billion in weaponry worldwide — more, that is, than any U.S. administration since World War II. In addition, Team Obama has loosened restrictions on arms exports, making it possible to send abroad a whole new range of weapons and weapons components — including Black Hawk, Huey helicopters and engines for C-17 transport planes — with far less scrutiny than was previously required.

This has been good news for the industry, which had been pressing for such changes for decades with little success. But the weaker regulations also make it potentially easier for arms smugglers and human rights abusers to get their hands on U.S. arms. For example, 36 U.S. allies — from Argentina and Bulgaria to Romania and Turkey — will no longer need licenses from the State Department to import weapons and weapons parts from the United States. This will make it far easier for smuggling networks to set up front companies in such countries and get U.S. arms and arms components that they can then pass on to third parties like Iran or China. Already a common practice, it will only increase under the new regulations.

The degree to which the Obama administration has been willing to bend over backward to help weapons exporters was underscored at a 2013 hearing on those administration export “reforms.” Tom Kelly, then the deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, caught the spirit of the era when asked whether the administration was doing enough to promote American arms exports. He responded:

“[We are] advocating on behalf of our companies and doing everything we can to make sure that these sales go through… and that is something we are doing every day, basically [on] every continent in the world… and we’re constantly thinking of how we can do better.”

One place where, with a helping hand from the Obama administration and the Pentagon, the arms industry has been doing a lot better of late is the Middle East. Washington has brokered deals for more than $50 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia alone for everything from F-15 fighter aircraft and Apache attack helicopters to combat ships and missile defense systems.

The most damaging deals, if not the most lucrative, have been the sales of bombs and missiles to the Saudis for their brutal war in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have been killed and millions of people are going hungry. Members of Congress like Michigan Representative John Conyers and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy have pressed for legislation that would at least stem the flow of the most deadly of the weaponry being sent for use there, but they have yet to overcome the considerable clout of the Saudis in Washington (and that of the arms industry).

When it comes to the arms business, however, there’s no end to the good news from the Middle East.  Take the administration’s proposed new 10-year aid deal with Israel. If enacted as currently planned, it would boost U.S. military assistance to that country by up to 25 percent — to roughly $4 billion per year. At the same time, it would phase out a provision that had allowed Israel to spend one-quarter of Washington’s aid developing its own defense industry. In other words, all that money — the full $4 billion in taxpayer dollars — will now flow directly into the coffers of companies like Lockheed Martin, which is in the midst of completing a multi-billion-dollar deal to sell the Israelis F-35s.

“Volatility” in Asia and Europe 

As Lockheed Martin’s Marillyn Hewson noted, however, the Middle East is hardly the only growth area for that firm or others like it. The dispute between China and its neighbors over the control of the South China Sea (which is in many ways an incipient conflict over whether that country or the United States will control that part of the Pacific Ocean) has opened up new vistas when it comes to the sale of American warships and other military equipment to Washington’s East Asian allies. The recent Hague court decision rejecting Chinese claims to those waters (and the Chinese rejection of it) is only likely to increase the pace of arms buying in the region.

At the same time, in the good-news-never-ends department, growing fears of North Korea’s nuclear program have stoked a demand for U.S.-supplied missile defense systems. The South Koreans have, in fact, just agreed to deploy Lockheed Martin’s THAAD anti-missile system. In addition, the Obama administration’s decision to end the longstanding embargo on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam is likely to open yet another significant market for U.S. firms. In the past two years alone, the United States has offered more than $15 billion worth of weaponry to allies in East Asia, with Taiwan, Japan and South Korea accounting for the bulk of the sales.

In addition, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to build a defense relationship with India, a development guaranteed to benefit U.S. arms exporters. Last year, Washington and New Delhi signed a 10-year defense agreement that included pledges of future joint work on aircraft engines and aircraft carrier designs. In these years, the United States has made significant inroads into the Indian arms market, which had traditionally been dominated by the Soviet Union and then Russia. Recent deals include a $5.8 billion sale of Boeing C-17 transport aircraft and a $1.4 billion agreement to provide support services related to a planned purchase of Apache attack helicopters.

And don’t forget “volatile” Europe. Great Britain’s recent Brexit vote introduced an uncertainty factor into American arms exports to that country. The United Kingdom has been by far the biggest purchaser of U.S. weapons in Europe of late, with more than $6 billion in deals struck over the past two years alone — more, that is, than the United States has sold to all other European countries combined.

The British defense behemoth BAE is Lockheed Martin’s principal foreign partner on the F-35 combat aircraft, which at a projected cost of $1.4 trillion over its lifetime already qualifies as the most expensive weapons program in history. If Brexit-driven austerity were to lead to a delay in, or the cancellation of, the F-35 deal (or any other major weapons shipments), it would be a blow to American arms makers. But count on one thing: were there to be even a hint that this might happen to the F-35, lobbyists for BAE will mobilize to get the deal privileged status and whatever other budget cuts may be in the works.

On the bright side (if you happen to be a weapons maker), any British reductions will certainly be more than offset by opportunities in Eastern and Central Europe, where a new Cold War seems to be gaining traction. Between 2014 and 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, military spending increased by 13 percent in the region in response to the Russian intervention in Ukraine. The rise in Poland’s outlays, at 22 percent, was particularly steep.

Under the circumstances, it should be obvious that trends in the global arms trade are a major news story and should be dealt with as such in the country most responsible for putting more weapons of a more powerful nature into the hands of those living in “volatile” regions. It’s a monster business (in every sense of the word) and certainly has far more dangerous consequences than licensing a Hollywood blockbuster or selling another Boeing airliner.

Historically, there have been rare occasions of public protest against unbridled arms trafficking, as with the backlash against “the merchants of death” after World War I, or the controversy over who armed Saddam Hussein that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Even now, small numbers of congressional representatives, including John Conyers, Chris Murphy and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, continue to try to halt the sale of cluster munitions, bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia.

There is, however, unlikely to be a genuine public debate about the value of the arms business and Washington’s place in it if it isn’t even considered a subject worthy of more than an occasional media story. In the meantime, the United States continues to hold onto the number one role in the global arms trade, the White House does its part, the Pentagon greases the wheels and the dollars roll in to profit-hungry U.S. weapons contractors.

Source: New feed