Lessons in democracy from the migrant caravan that Trump calls ‘lawless’

Jesus Rodriguez writes:

The caravan migrants who arrived at the border nearly a month ago don’t have a country. But they do have a government.

In the time since the caravan left Honduras in mid-October, the asylum-seekers have fashioned a proto-democracy out of their group of some 6,000 migrants overwhelmingly from Central America, most of whom have walked for most of the trip, at times hitching rides in the backs of cars or trucks.

To hear President Donald Trump tell it, the caravan is nothing more than a “lawless” mob of potentially violent criminals. But dozens of phone interviews and WhatsApp conversations with advocacy groups and migrants, as well as social media updates from groups on the ground, show that the migrants have organized a surprisingly sophisticated ruling structure, complete with everything from a press shop to a department of public works.

When the migrants needed to make public announcements, debate the best routes and vote on different plans, they established a nightly general assembly as a forum open to all, Athens-style. Their legislative floor was an abandoned truck parking lot or an unused sports stadium. Some of the migrants even took turns as communications directors, drafting press statements that were transmitted through a media group of more than 370 journalists on WhatsApp. [Continue reading…]

Saudi Arabia declares war on America’s Muslim congresswomen

Ola Salem writes:

Ever since the midterm election, conservative media in the United States have targeted with special zeal Ilhan Omar, an incoming Somali-American Democratic congresswoman and a devout Muslim who wears hijab. In response to Democrats’ push to remove a headwear ban on the House floor to accommodate Omar, conservative commentator and pastor E.W. Jackson complained on a radio show that Muslims were transforming Congress into an “Islamic republic.”

The Democratic Party has several rising political stars with Arab or Muslim backgrounds, all of whom have become objects of such conspiracy theories. But it’s not only American conservatives who have been indulging in this culture war. The organized attacks have also been coming from abroad—specifically, from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The midterm elections have amplified an existing suspicion in Middle Eastern media of Muslim political activism in the United States. Academics, media outlets, and commentators close to Persian Gulf governments have repeatedly accused Omar, Rashida Tlaib (another newly elected Muslim congresswoman), and Abdul El-Sayed (who made a failed bid to become governor of Michigan) of being secret members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are hostile to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. On Sunday, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya published a feature insinuating that Omar and Tlaib were part of an alliance between the Democratic Party and Islamist groups to control Congress. The article accused the two of being “anti-Trump and his political team and options, especially his foreign policy starting from the sanctions on Iran to the isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood and all movements of political Islam.”

In another example, a talk show on Saudi-owned station MBC discussed the Muslim congresswomen and more broadly the implications of Democrats taking the House. Prominent Arab anchor Amr Adib debated the matter with Egyptian political scientist Moataz Fattah, who suggested that Trump’s successful combating of Islamists would be undermined by the Democrats’ victory. The attacks have become so ubiquitous in the Persian Gulf that the trend itself is the subject of debate, both online and on television. [Continue reading…]

The pro-Israel push to purge U.S. campus critics

Katherine Franke writes:

There are signs that we’ve reached a tipping point in US public recognition of Israel’s suppression of the rights of Palestinians as a legitimate human rights concern. Increasingly, students on campuses across the country are calling on their universities to divest from companies that do business in Israel. Newly elected members of Congress are saying what was once unsayable: that perhaps the US should question its unqualified diplomatic and financial support for Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, and hold it to the same human rights scrutiny we apply to other nations around the globe. Global companies such as Airbnb have recognized that their business practices must reflect international condemnation of the illegality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Natalie Portman, Lorde, and other celebrities have declined appearances in Israel, acknowledging the call to boycott the Israeli government on account of its human rights violations. And The New York Times published a column arguing, with unprecedented forthrightness, that criticism of ethno-nationalism in Israel (for example, defining Israel exclusively as a “Jewish state”) isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic.

At the same time, discussions on college campuses about the complexities of freedom, history, and belonging in Israel and Palestine are under increasing pressure and potential censorship from right-wing entities. In fact, new policies adopted by the US and Israeli governments are intended to eliminate any rigorous discussion of Israeli–Palestinian politics in university settings. Not since the McCarthyite anti-Communist purges have we seen such an aggressive effort to censor teaching and learning on topics the government disfavors. [Continue reading…]

Music: Henry Cow — ‘Nirvana for Mice’ & ‘Amygdala’

 

The Arctic is in even worse shape than you realize

The Washington Post reports:

Over the past three decades of global warming, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a stunning 95 percent, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Report Card.

The finding suggests that the sea at the top of the world has already morphed into a new and very different state, with major implications not only for creatures such as walruses and polar bears but, in the long term, perhaps for the pace of global warming itself.

The oldest ice can be thought of as a kind of glue that holds the Arctic together and, through its relative permanence, helps keep the Arctic cold even in long summers.

“The younger the ice, the thinner the ice, the easier it is to go away,” said Don Perovich, a scientist at Dartmouth who coordinated the sea ice section of the yearly report.

If the Arctic begins to experience entirely ice-free summers, scientists say, the planet will warm even more, as the dark ocean water absorbs large amounts of solar heating that used to be deflected by the cover of ice. The new findings were published as climate negotiators in Poland are trying to reach a global consensus on how to address climate change. [Continue reading…]

Climate change is not only influencing extreme weather events, it’s causing them

Brandon Miller writes:

Extreme weather events that spanned the globe in 2017 have been directly linked to — and in some cases were even caused by — continued warming of the planet via human influence through greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report.

For the second year in a row, the annual report from the American Meteorological Society found weather extremes that could not have happened without human-caused warming of the climate. Advances in scientific modeling and additional climbs in temperatures are making the connection between global warming and extreme weather much more concrete.

“Global temperature, the backdrop in which extremes are unfolding, continues to rise. … Nature is thereby increasingly rolling back its curtain of sensitivity to rising greenhouse gases,” Martin Hoerling, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the authors of Monday’s report, wrote in an email.

“This alone is making it easier to scientifically identify the fingerprint of human influence, not to mention improved modeling tools,” Hoerling said.

Scientists found that record warm waters in the Tasman Sea in 2017 and 2018 “were virtually impossible without global warming,” and they concluded that a crippling drought in East Africa that has led to food shortages for millions of people would not have occurred naturally before the Industrial Revolution, when humans began to interfere with the climate system.

Included in the 17 events identified in the report in which global warming played a role were major floods such as those with Hurricane Harvey, fires, heat waves over land and in the ocean, and even record low sunshine in Japan in August 2017. [Continue reading…]

Former senators call on current senators to put national interest above party and self interest

In an open letter, 44 former U.S. senators write:

Dear Senate colleagues,

As former members of the U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans, it is our shared view that we are entering a dangerous period, and we feel an obligation to speak up about serious challenges to the rule of law, the Constitution, our governing institutions and our national security.

We are on the eve of the conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and the House’s commencement of investigations of the president and his administration. The likely convergence of these two events will occur at a time when simmering regional conflicts and global power confrontations continue to threaten our security, economy and geopolitical stability.

It is a time, like other critical junctures in our history, when our nation must engage at every level with strategic precision and the hand of both the president and the Senate.

We are at an inflection point in which the foundational principles of our democracy and our national security interests are at stake, and the rule of law and the ability of our institutions to function freely and independently must be upheld. [Continue reading…]

Solzhenitsyn did more than anyone to bring the Soviet Union to its knees

Michael Scammell writes:

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, pundits offered a variety of reasons for its failure: economic, political, military. Few thought to add a fourth, more elusive cause: the regime’s total loss of credibility.

This hard-to-measure process had started in 1956, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his so-called secret speech to party leaders, in which he denounced Josef Stalin’s purges and officially revealed the existence of the gulag prison system. Not long afterward, Boris Pasternak allowed his suppressed novel “Doctor Zhivago” to be published in the West, tearing another hole in the Iron Curtain. Then, in 1962, the literary magazine Novy Mir caused a sensation with a novella set in the gulag by an unknown author named Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.

That novella, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” took the country, and then the world, by storm. In crisp, clear prose, it told the story of a simple man’s day in a labor camp, where he stoically endured endless injustices. It was so incendiary that, when it appeared, many Soviet readers thought that government censorship had been abolished.

Solzhenitsyn was no youthful beginner. Born a hundred years ago, on Dec. 11, 1918, just 14 months after the Bolshevik Revolution, he was virtually the same age as the Soviet state and had experienced every phase of its development. As a youth and college student he had been swept up in the revolutionary euphoria of the communist experiment and fervently believed in the premises of Marxism-Leninism. In World War II he served as the commander of an artillery sound-ranging battalion and was awarded two medals for valor.

But Solzhenitsyn’s promising career was brutally cut short by his arrest in February 1945 on a charge of anti-Soviet activities; he was swiftly sentenced to eight years of hard labor in the gulag. His crime? Criticizing Stalin and the Soviet Army in letters exchanged with a school friend on another front.

This Dickensian reversal of fortune plunged Solzhenitsyn into despair, but it also opened his eyes to the hideous underbelly of Soviet communism and gave him glimpses of the reign of terror and lies that had kept it going for so long. [Continue reading…]

How the Koch Foundation fuels the hard-right cause in Britain

George Monbiot writes:

Dark money is among the greatest current threats to democracy. It means money spent below the public radar, that seeks to change political outcomes. It enables very rich people and corporations to influence politics without showing their hands.

Among the world’s biggest political spenders are Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries, a vast private conglomerate of oil pipelines and refineries, chemicals, timber and paper companies, commodity trading firms and cattle ranches. If their two fortunes were rolled into one, Charles David Koch, with $120bn, would be the richest man on Earth.

In a rare public statement, in an essay published in 1978, Charles Koch explained his objective. “Our movement must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm.” As Jane Mayer records in her book Dark Money, the Kochs’ ideology – lower taxes and looser regulations – and their business interests “dovetailed so seamlessly it was difficult to distinguish one from the other”. Over the years, she notes, “the company developed a stunning record of corporate malfeasance”. Koch Industries paid massive fines for oil spills, illegal benzene emissions and ammonia pollution. In 1999, a jury found that Koch Industries had knowingly used a corroded pipeline to carry butane, which caused an explosion in which two people died. Company Town, a film released last year, tells the story of local people’s long fight against pollution from a huge paper mill owned by the Koch brothers.

The Kochs’ chief political lieutenant, Richard Fink, developed what he called a three-stage model of social change. Universities would produce “the intellectual raw materials”. Thinktanks would transform them into “a more practical or usable form”. Then “citizen activist” groups would “press for the implementation of policy change”. To these ends the Kochs set up bodies in all three categories themselves, such as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Cato Institute and the “citizens’ group” Americans for Prosperity. But for the most part they funded existing organisations that met their criteria. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, thinktanks, journals and movements. And they appear to have been remarkably successful.

As researchers at Harvard and Columbia universities have found, Americans for Prosperity alone now rivals the Republican party in terms of size, staffing and organisational capacity. It has pulled “the Republican party to the far right on economic, tax and regulatory issues”. It was crucial to the success of the Tea Party movement, the ousting of Democrats from Congress, and the staffing of Trump’s transition team. The Koch network has helped secure massive tax cuts, the smashing of trade unions and the dismantling of environmental legislation.

But their hands, for the most part, remain invisible. A Republican consultant who has worked for Charles and David Koch told Mayer that “to call them under the radar is an understatement. They are underground.”

Until now, there has been no evidence that Charles and David Koch have funded organisations based in the UK. But a few weeks ago, a reader pointed me to one line he found in a form submitted to the US government by the Charles Koch Foundation, which showed money transferred to a company that appears to be the US funding arm of a UK organisation. Once I had grasped its significance, I set up a collaboration with the investigative group DeSmog UK. We could scarcely believe what we were seeing. [Continue reading…]

An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have

By Deborah M Gordon

Like a brain, an ant colony operates without central control. Each is a set of interacting individuals, either neurons or ants, using simple chemical interactions that in the aggregate generate their behaviour. People use their brains to remember. Can ant colonies do that? This question leads to another question: what is memory? For people, memory is the capacity to recall something that happened in the past. We also ask computers to reproduce past actions – the blending of the idea of the computer as brain and brain as computer has lead us to take ‘memory’ to mean something like the information stored on a hard drive. We know that our memory relies on changes in how much a set of linked neurons stimulate each other; that it is reinforced somehow during sleep; and that recent and long-term memory involve different circuits of connected neurons. But there is much we still don’t know about how those neural events come together, whether there are stored representations that we use to talk about something that happened in the past, or how we can keep performing a previously learned task such as reading or riding a bicycle. 

Any living being can exhibit the simplest form of memory, a change due to past events. Look at a tree that has lost a branch. It remembers by how it grows around the wound, leaving traces in the pattern of the bark and the shape of the tree. You might be able to describe the last time you had the flu, or you might not. Either way, in some sense your body ‘remembers’, because some of your cells now have different antibodies, molecular receptors, which fit that particular virus.

Past events can alter the behaviour of both individual ants and ant colonies. Individual carpenter ants offered a sugar treat remembered its location for a few minutes; they were likely to return to where the food had been. Another species, the Sahara Desert ant, meanders around the barren desert, searching for food. It appears that an ant of this species can remember how far it walked, or how many steps it took, since the last time it was at the nest.

[Read more…]