I’m a Jewish American Who Wanted to Visit Israel. I Got as Far as the Airport.

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Members of the interfaith delegation denied transit to Israel for supporting the BDS movement. (Photo courtesy of Noah Habeeb, second from left.)

A few days ago I prepared to take my first trip to Israel-Palestine as part of an interfaith delegation of human rights activists. I got as far as Dulles Airport.

Four other faith leaders and I — three of us Jewish, one Christian, and one Muslim — were prohibited from checking into our Lufthansa flight at the demand of the Israeli government.

Offered no documentation or explanation by Lufthansa officials, we could only presume this was punishment for our support of Palestinian human rights. This was confirmed when the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs told Haaretz that the travel ban was due to our support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In my Jewish American family, I learned to engage critically with Israel, and after many years, I was ready to go and see with my own eyes the good and the bad: the land and sites that are holy to many, as well as the realities of Israeli occupation and institutional discrimination.

Unfortunately, the Israeli government wouldn’t let me.

Banned in TLV

I am heartbroken and angry that we’ve been denied this opportunity to travel. But this is far from the first instance of denial of entry, and it comes as no shock to me.

Israel has long enacted travel bans, mostly against Palestinians. Many Palestinian refugees and their descendants, displaced from their homes during the Nakba in 1948 — when over 750,000 Palestinians were made refugees — are not allowed to return. Many of those displaced during the 1967 War are also unable to return, despite the rights of refugees in international law.

Israel has also denied entry to international observers and human rights organizations.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Makarim Wibisono, was denied entry in 2015. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both been denied access to Gaza — where, according to Robert Piper, the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities, “the ‘unlivability threshold’ has already been passed.” Gazans currently receive between two to four hours of electricity daily and lack clean drinking water, while living under Israeli occupation and siege.

Like the denial of entry to international observers, the activist ban is part of a “see no evil” strategy to deny access to the reality on the ground, and in doing so chill human rights activism.

Suppression of BDS Activism

The activist ban targets supporters of the BDS movement, a Palestinian-led movement for justice and freedom calling on Israel to end the 1967 occupation, end the institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians living in Israel, and uphold the right of refugees to return. Like all boycott movements — from the American South to South Africa — the goal of BDS is to become obsolete: When Israel stops infringing on Palestinian rights, BDS will end.

Today, the BDS movement counts 200 successes in the United States alone.

Campaigns have successfully targeted corporations like Veolia, G4S, and Sodastream for their complicity in Israeli occupation and apartheid; passed over 50 resolutions at universities and colleges, as well as academic associations like the American Studies Association, Women’s Studies Association, and Peace and Justice Studies Association; and led divestment efforts in faith communities, including major U.S. churches like the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.

The success of the BDS movement is also evident in the repression faced by activists. In many states, legislation has been passed that punishes or suppresses BDS activism. And pending legislation in the U.S. Congress would criminalize BDS, with penalties as severe as 20 years imprisonment and $ 1 million in fines, which the ACLU deems “civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies.”

In Israel, an anti-boycott law allows for civil suits to be filed against anybody who supports boycotts, even those that only target illegal settlements. And in March, the Knesset passed a bill forbidding entry or residency to those who advocate for BDS — that’s the law which purportedly prohibits my entry.

Next Year in Jerusalem?

As my fellow delegate Shakeel Sayed said, “The holy land does not belong to any one group of people. All people belong to the holy land.”

My denial of entry makes even clearer what I already knew: Israel is not a democratic state where true dissent is allowed. Of course, a true democracy doesn’t keep millions of people under military occupation for decades or discriminate against them under apartheid either.

But perhaps just as significant is what my denial says about Israel as a Jewish state.

There’s no denying that barring Jews, including a rabbi, from the “Jewish state” is significant. As many have documented, Israel has always been for some Jews at the expense of Palestinians and other Jews. For example, many Mizrahim, or “Oriental” Jews, were settled in ma’abarot — transit camps consisting mostly of Mizrahim like themselves, who were expected to assimilate to European Jewish customs before becoming a part of Israel. A few resisted by demanding resettlement in the countries they’d come from.

Once again, as one Israeli minister warned recently, the “rules of the game have changed.” Israel is now only for Jews who don’t dissent.

“I promise that my activism to restore the dignity and honor of the people in Palestine will not stop, but will double down,” Shakeel vowed. And I promise that, too — so that if not next year, some day soon, all people will have access to justice and peace in Israel-Palestine.

Follow along with our #JustFaith17 delegation here to see what Israel was so afraid for the #interfaith5 see.

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Nearly 50 Senators Want to Make It a Felony to Boycott Israel

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(Photo: Kate Ausburn / Flickr)

In 1966, the NAACP of Claiborne County, Mississippi launched a boycott of several white-owned local businesses on the basis of racial discrimination.

It was so impactful that the local hardware store filed a lawsuit against the individuals and organizations who coordinated the boycott. After 10 long years of litigation, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in favor of the white businesses and ordered the NAACP to pay for all their lost earnings.

Years later, in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 to overturn the lower court’s decision on the basis that nonviolent boycotts are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. In announcing the unanimous decision, Justice John Paul Stevens said, “One of the foundations of our society is the right of individuals to combine with other persons in pursuit of a common goal by lawful means.”

That should have been the end of it. But now, Americans’ right to boycott is under attack once again — thanks to a vicious anti-boycott bill making its way through the Senate.

In particular, it appears to target the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is an international movement calling on individuals, institutions, and governments to boycott Israeli products until it ends its occupation of Palestinian lands. The boycott is explicitly nonviolent and is supported by activists, celebrities, faith-based groups, and political and social justice organizations around the world.

The proposed Israel Anti-Boycott Act would make it a felony for Americans to support BDS, with a penalty of up to $ 1 million and 20 years in prison.

Unfortunately, the bill enjoys bipartisan support: 32 Republicans and 15 Democrats are currently signed on as cosponsors, including party leaders like Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Ted Cruz (R-TX). In response, the ACLU issued a letter urging members of the Senate to oppose the bill based on its “direct violation of the First Amendment.” (Following the publication of the ACLU’s letter, several members of Congress have agreed to review their sponsorship, but so far none have removed their names.)

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act would function by amending an earlier law from 1979, which prohibits American citizens and corporations from complying with boycotts called for by foreign nations against U.S. allies. The new law would include boycotts “fostered and imposed by international governmental organizations” like the United Nations. In this, it’s a direct response to the 2016 UN Human Rights Council resolution discouraging businesses from operating in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In one way, it’s genius. By claiming a connection between BDS and the UN — a connection the UN has never embraced, in that resolution or any other — the bill attempts to work around NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co.

But the BDS movement is not a product of the UN — it has nothing to do with it at all, except to the degree that it’s based on international law. The BDS call to action was issued in 2005 by a coalition of 170 Palestinian political parties, professional associations, refugee networks, and civil society organizations. BDS is a tactic, not an organization, and the boycott has always been grassroots and decentralized, meaning anyone anywhere can partake in BDS by making the simple decision to do so.

Whether the congressional supporters of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act misunderstand or are intentionally misrepresenting BDS is uncertain, but the Supreme Court decision of 1982 is clear as crystal: Americans’ right to peaceful boycott with the aim to “bring about political, social, and economic change” is protected by the First Amendment. That means this bill is more than egregiously immoral — it’s unconstitutional.

The bill’s language also lumps Israel’s settlements in with the country’s internationally recognized borders.

Significantly, it declares the UN Human Rights Council’s 2016 position on Israeli settlements an “action to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel.” Yet that resolution took no position on the boycotting of goods produced in Israel proper — it only took aim at Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, which are illegal under international law.

U.S. policy since 1979 has recognized that the Israeli settlements are “inconsistent with international law.” By contrast, the new bill effectively erases any distinction between Israel and its settlements in the West Bank. If it’s passed, anyone who chooses not to do business with or buy items manufactured in illegal Israeli settlements can be convicted, fined, and even jailed.

Efforts to curb this kind of activism are often touted as efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Yet polls show that only 17 percent of American Jews support the continued construction of settlements. The bill is so controversial, in fact, that the liberal pro-Israel organization J Street, which has long opposed BDS, recently announced its opposition to the proposed law on the basis that it “divides [opponents of the global BDS movement] by making the issue about the settlements.”

It’s difficult to know exactly how broadly the law, if passed, will be enforced. Its intentionally vague language leaves a lot to the imagination, and perhaps that’s exactly what’s intended. The real goal may be to frighten people from engaging in the completely legal act of living out their values in their economic choices.

But we can’t let fear prevent us from exercising our rights and fulfilling our moral obligations. The silver lining is that every effort to quell the BDS movement has served to strengthen it. Each attempt at criminalizing the boycott, whether on the state or federal level, has been met with a spike in Google searches for BDS and related terms.

And with the uproar caused by this new bill, the right-wing pro-Israel lobby just may prove to be the BDS movement’s best ally.

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Don’t Let Corporations Pick What Websites You Visit

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(Photo: Flickr/ Backbone Campaign)

Think about the websites you visit. The movies you stream. The music you listen to online. The animal videos that are just too cute not to share.

Now think about the freedom to use the internet however and whenever you choose being taken away from you. That’s exactly what Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs), are trying to do.

Right now, those companies are constrained by a principle called net neutrality — the so-called “guiding principle of the internet.” It’s the idea that people should be free to access all the content available online without ISPs dictating how, when, and where that content can be accessed.

In other words, net neutrality holds that the company you pay for internet access can’t control what you do online.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission adopted strong net neutrality rules that banned ISPs from slowing down connection speeds to competing services — e.g., Comcast can’t slow down content or applications specific to Verizon because it wants you to switch to their services — or blocking websites in an effort to charge individuals or companies more for services they’re already paying for.

But now the open internet as we know it is under threat again. Net neutrality rules are in danger of being overturned by Donald Trump’s FCC chairman Ajit Pai and broadband companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon.

But these corporations aren’t doing this alone. They’re getting help from at least eight handpicked members of Congress, all Republicans (Paul Ryan being the most notable), who’ve signed statements of support for overturning the neutrality rules.

Why? All we need to do is follow the money.

These eight lawmakers have all received significant campaign contributions from these corporations. That means the big broadband corporations and their special interest groups are attempting — and succeeding — to influence policymakers’ decisions on rules that affect us all.

The fun doesn’t stop there.

Ajit Pai — the FCC chairman bent on overturning net neutrality — is a former lawyer for Verizon, one of the very companies petitioning to have the rules changed. Lately Pai has been citing an academic paper arguing that the FCC “eschewed economics and embraced populism as [its] guiding principle” in making decisions on issues like net neutrality.

The catch? This paper wasn’t written by independent experts. It was funded and commissioned by CALinnovates, a telecommunications industry trade group. Their biggest member? None other than AT&T, which stands to benefit a lot if these rules are overturned.

This is just one example of “information laundering,” in which corporate-commissioned research is being used to further corporate agendas. It’s just another way corporations are using their money and influence to lobby members of Congress.

During a recent day of action, major websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google stood up in defense of net neutrality by using pop-up ads, GIFs, and videos to inform the public of the issue and ask them to tell the FCC to “preserve the open Internet.”

You too can fight back against corporate influence by calling the FCC and telling them you won’t give up your right to use the Internet the way you want.

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Trump: The Anti-Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan sit down together inside the Hofdi in Reykjavik, Iceland on Saturday, Oct. 11, 1986 at the start of a series of talks. (Photo: Scott Stewart / AP)

Back in the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev had a magic touch internationally. Traveling outside the Soviet Union, he often received the adulation that was so frequently lacking at home. When Gorbachev visited other Communist countries, crowds would turn out to welcome him as a savior.

He had that effect in Beijing when he visited on May 16, 1989. The protests in Tiananmen Square had started the month before, and the protesters saw in Gorbachev a possible future trajectory for China. According to a contemporary account in The New York Times:

The demonstrations were doubly embarrassing for the Chinese leaders because of the obvious enthusiasm that many of the protesters felt for Mr. Gorbachev. Several had prepared banners in Russian hailing him as a great reformer, and a crowd of workers and bicyclists applauded when he drove past them on his way to the Great Hall of the People.

Even more startling was his appearance at East Germany’s celebrations of its 40th anniversary on October 7, 1989. As he passed along Unter den Linden, crowds on either side of East Berlin’s famous boulevard cried out, “Gorby, help us.” Two days later, 70,000 people showed up to demonstrate, non-violently, in Leipzig. The East German regime, as Gorbachev had warned, was living on borrowed time. The Berlin Wall would fall a mere one month later.

Gorbachev made other important visits — Czechoslovakia in April 1987, Romania in May 1987, Cuba in April 1989 — that contributed to a wave of transformation that took place in East-Central Europe (though not China or Cuba). Of course, Gorbachev failed to transform the Soviet Union as he’d hoped and ended up destroying the very structure he wanted to rehabilitate. Still, he’ll be remembered for his contributions to ending the Cold War and bringing hope to many throughout the Communist world.

Now along comes Donald Trump, the head of another putative superpower desperately in need of internal reform. Trump has promised his own form of perestroika in the form of his attacks on the “administrative state.” He offers his own form of glasnost with his obsessive tweeting. Trumpeting a xenophobic foreign policy, he’s also vowed to thoroughly transform the bloc that he nominally leads.

And when Trump goes abroad, he has his own transformative effect. But while Gorbachev promoted democratization in his wake, Trump promotes exactly the opposite.

The Trump Touch

Donald Trump is the Tinkerbell of tyranny. He sprinkles pixie dust on autocracies to make them more so and on democracies so that they move ever closer to dictatorship.

Trump’s touch was on full view in Saudi Arabia during his first overseas stop as president of the free world. It was an odd choice of destinations, since Saudi Arabia is one of the key leaders of the unfree world.

But Saudi Arabia is Trump’s kind of place, where oil is king, women are submissive, no one protests on the street, and the ruling clique does pretty much whatever it wants to do. Trump seemed fully at home in this feudal kingdom, and he had nothing but praise for his hosts. While there, he also met with other autocrats of the Gulf, such as those ruling Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Not long after he left, Bahrain decided that Trump had effectively given the country a green light to crack down on its opposition. A mere two days after meeting Trump in Riyadh, where the president assured King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa that his administration wouldn’t complicate bilateral relations with anything so trivial as human rights considerations, the Bahraini government used force to disband a nonviolent sit-in in support of the country’s most prominent Shiite leader. Five protesters died, and the authorities arrested hundreds. Then, the government shut down al-Wasat, the most prominent independent newspaper, and the Trump administration uttered not a peep of protest.

Saudi Arabia, having extracted a promise of even more U.S. military assistance with which to prosecute its war in Yemen, decided to see how far it could go to leverage its new relationship with the Trump administration. Together with the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, it moved against Qatar, a Gulf outlier for its relatively cordial relations with Iran and its relative tolerance for independent journalism in the form of Al Jazeera. This time, the Trump administration was divided, with Trump himself seeming to side with Riyadh while the State Department and the Pentagon stuck up for Doha, a key ally on military matters in the region.

The latest place to experience this Trump effect is Poland. Since Poland is a democracy, at least for the time being, the people fought back and produced an unexpected result.

The Putative Polish Putsch

Trump’s decision to visit to Poland just before the G20 summit was just as pointed as his choice of Saudi Arabia as a first overseas stop. The Polish government that took over 2015, led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), has taken just the kind of stances that Trump loves: against immigration, against a free press, against the rule of law.

Poland was the perfect place for Trump to hammer home his veiled white supremacist message. Peter Beinart, in The Atlantic, contrasts Trump’s speech in Warsaw to George W. Bush speech there in 2003:

In his 2003 speech, Bush referred to democracy 13 times. Trump mentioned it once. And for good reason. Ideologically, what links the current American and Polish governments is not their commitment to democracy — both are increasingly authoritarian. It is their hostility to Muslim immigration. The European Union is suing Poland’s government for refusing to accept refugees. Among Trump’s biggest applause lines in Warsaw was, “While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.” Given that Trump had linked “our values” to America and Poland’s “tradition,” “faith,” “culture,” and “identity,” it wasn’t hard to imagine whom that leaves out.

Equally important, at least for the PiS audience, was the benediction Trump gave to Poland’s leadership. Poland, Trump said, is “an example for others who seek freedom.”

Shortly after the visit, the Polish ruling party decided to remind the world of precisely what that example represents. It attempted to ram through several laws that would have severely hobbled rule of law in the country. One would have allowed the government to fire all Supreme Court justices and appoint its own replacements; a second would have given parliament, controlled by PiS, the authority to appoint members of the National Council of the Judiciary, a body designed to preserve the independence of the judiciary.

Building on earlier moves to eliminate any pesky judicial constraints on its authority, which prompted an EU “probe” into Polish actions, PiS was following a game plan devised by Viktor Orban and Fidesz in Hungary: to clear away all constitutional barriers to creating an illiberal democracy.

The surprise came when Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed the two bills. A former PiS stalwart — he had to resign from the party when he became president — Duda was responding to an EU threat to suspend Poland’s voting rights as well as the enormous wave of protests that had washed over the country. Hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the streets in Warsaw, and many veterans of the Solidarity era, including Lech Walesa himself, spoke out vehemently against the government.

PiS was furious at this apostasy. It put enormous counter-pressure on Duda to force him to sign the third bill in the package, which gives the justice minister the power to appoint the heads of all lower courts.

The EU is nevertheless following through on its threat to begin proceedings against Poland, beginning with a legal suit filed by the European Commission against the country for breaking rules on judicial independence and sizeable fines from the European Court of Justice.

In Poland, Donald Trump sees a future trajectory for his own administration. He hasn’t yet attempted to change the laws regulating the courts because he’s been too busy packing them with right-wing ideologues, starting with Neil Gorsuch at the Supreme Court and including 27 lower-court judges (three times what Obama nominated over the same period). Trump has been woefully slow in filling administration positions, particularly at State, but he’s moved at lightning speed to transform the judiciary.

More generally, Trump’s trips to Saudi Arabia and Poland are part of a new geopolitical realignment that advisers like Steve Bannon are pushing. Forget NATO. Forget the Community of Democracies. Donald Trump wants nothing less than a worldwide suppression of liberal values such as rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and an independent press.

Gorbachev presided over the end of a geopolitical system — the Cold War. Popular protest — in East-Central Europe and in the Soviet Union itself — led to the unraveling of Soviet-bloc Communism as well. Trump may inadvertently preside over the end of U.S. hegemony, as both Europe and Asia chart more independent paths.

Let’s hope that popular resistance destroys his Trumpian perestroika as well, before it gets any further off the ground.

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8 Lessons U.S. Progressives Can Learn From the U.K. Labour Party

(Photo: Victoria M Gardner / Shutterstock)

In March, progressive activists in the United Kingdom had reason to feel deeply discouraged. Nine months earlier, a majority had voted for Brexit, setting in motion plans to pull the U.K. out of the European Union. Then Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May decided to call a “snap election” with the goal of consolidating Tory power in Parliament in the face of weak opposition. The Labour Party, led by progressive Jeremy Corbyn, was polling at a miserable 24 percent and facing the possibility of further marginalization.

But on June 8, Corbyn and the Labour Party experienced a stunning reversal of fortune, almost winning the national election called in to vanquish them. And as of mid-July, Labour is 8 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives.

One key force in this change was a grassroots network called Momentum, formed in 2015 to build participation and engagement in the Labour Party. This election, Momentum mobilized 23,000 members and 150 local chapters through on-the-ground campaigning and social media. Think Our Revolution and MoveOn.org with a powerful electoral field operation.

“The results were beautiful,” said Deborah Waters, a Momentum co-founder and volunteer. “I heard it described as ‘the bitterest of victories for the Conservatives and the sweetest of defeats for Labour.’ The winners didn’t really win and the losers didn’t really lose.”

How did this reversal happen? And what can those of us deep in this Trump presidency learn from it? What follows are eight lessons from Momentum and Labour’s remarkable campaign.

Read the full article on YES! Magazine.

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On Electric Cars, the U.S. Is Stuck in the Slow Lane

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(Photo: Noya Fields / Flickr)

The French government recently announced a plan to ban sales of new gas-powered cars by 2040. Not to be outdone, the UK government is now rolling out a similar plan of its own.

These plans sound shockingly radical, but in fact many analysts think those transitions will happen anyway.

For instance, the Dutch bank ING recently predicted that all the cars sold in Europe will be electric by 2030. More conservative estimates put it at 2050. Either way, most experts now see this change on the horizon.

Electric vehicles — or EVs — are already more efficient than their gas-powered counterparts, and could soon become cheaper too. High-end models already outperform conventional engines for speed and acceleration.

Yet potential buyers will continue to be wary as long as the range of batteries remains small, and the network of charging points — think gas stations for electric cars — remains patchy.

Rapidly developing technologies could help overcome this “range anxiety,” as the distance between charges could rise from around 100 miles to over 400 in the next decade. But it’s public policy, rather than technology, that’s the real driver of the EV revolution.

Take Norway, where EVs already account for more than 40 percent of new cars sold.

There, a publicly funded network of free charging stations is driving the surge. The government also offered a range of other perks and incentives: scrapping sales and registration taxes for EVs, exempting them from parking charges and road tolls, and allowing them to dodge heavy traffic by using bus and taxi lanes.

As sales of EVs come to overtake gas-powered cars, the subsidies are being phased out. Yet the benefits continue: A growing fleet of clean vehicles will massively reduce air and climate pollution, and Norway is now well placed to develop and export technologies in a fast growing new industry.

As other European governments get more serious about supporting EVs, some conventional automakers are already embracing an electric future. The Swedish company Volvo recently announced that all of its new cars will be electric or hybrids from 2019 onwards.

U.S. manufacturers, on the other hand, could scarcely be more different.

Oil companies and automakers have successfully lobbied the Trump administration to consider reversing Obama-era fuel-economy standards, which could have supported a shift to hybrids and EVs, as well as cutting pollution that leads to thousands of premature deaths every year.

No wonder the big three U.S. automakers — Ford, GM, and Chrysler — lag way behind their global competitors in developing new EVs. Even stock markets are questioning the wisdom of that bet, as Tesla’s value starts to rival its Detroit competitors.

Fortunately, states and cities can still lead where the federal government is failing.

California is sticking with its fuel-economy standards — the nation’s toughest — and mandating automakers to sell “zero emission vehicles” alongside conventional cars.

California’s cities are also leading the way with public charging points, but they’re not alone. Cities from Seattle to Atlanta are embracing EVs through incentives ranging from tax incentives to carpool lane access.

Of course, promoting EVs alone won’t solve our air pollution problem, or help the U.S. meet its share of global action on climate change — especially where electricity is still produced from coal and other fossil fuels.

We’ll also need better public transportation and changes in how cities are planned, to bring homes closer to shops and workplaces. But electric vehicles will be an important part of getting air pollution and climate change under control.

Local politicians need to step up where the Trump administration is failing, or we risk getting left in the slow lane.

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Consumer Protection Isn’t Here to Stay

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Tenants March to Stop Giveaways to Wall Street Landlords

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How We Can Transition to a “Bottom Up” Economy

The People's Climate March in New York City

The People’s Climate March in New York City (Photo: South Bend Voice/Flickr)

Resistance to the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants, climate change policy, and economic fairness has been fierce. But alongside these efforts—from flooding representatives’ phone lines to packing town hall meetings to marching in protest—it’s also important to begin the work of building alternatives to the systems that underlie the exploitation of people and planet.

The understandable focus on Trump—with his cronyism, bombast, and militarism—can divert us from the fact that several decades of extractive capitalism have fueled extreme wealth and racial inequality, democratic demise, and brought us to the brink of ecological ruin. Wall Street’s debt-based financing system has created a phantom wealth economy delinked from the real economy of goods and services. Trumpism is only the latest appalling chapter in a dominant narrative that holds our unsustainable economy in place, including the myths that a rising tide lifts all boats and that growth is the answer.

In the face of renewed calls for trickle-down economic policy—such as proposed tax cuts for the rich and transnational corporations—we urgently need a clearly articulated theory and practice of sustainable economics that works for local communities. Enter a blessing of a book, Anthony Flaccavento’s Building a Healthy Economy from the Bottom Up: Harnessing Real-World Experience for Transformative Change.

Bottom Up is a comprehensive primer on the transition to a new economy—the place-based movement to rewire the economy for equity and ecological sustainability. It is rich in stories and detail for the curious or discouraged and those seeking a strategy to move toward a sustainable and equitable future. Flaccavento excels as a storyteller, reporting on successful “bottom-up” ventures and experiments in building new systems around food, energy, health services, worker ownership, community finance, and place-based arts and culture.

Flaccavento’s perspective is grounded in his work as a farmer, entrepreneur, and candidate for Congress, with decades of experience building a regional food system and relocalized economy in southern Virginia. While he lifts up inspiring examples of urban local economy projects, he also deeply understands the challenges facing rural communities that have been bypassed by the lopsided economic gains of the past four decades. In regions like southern Virginia, where the median income is below $ 30,000 a year and the poverty rate is over 25 percent in some communities, new economy solutions have the potential to transcend political differences by creating and fixing infrastructure, generating jobs, increasing food security, and reducing energy costs.

We cannot coast on a “small is beautiful” community garden project or worker-owned café—not while federal policies push down wages.

One challenge in the Trump era is how to leverage place-based movements to impact national policy. I have witnessed local economy activities in New England that appear to operate in a parallel universe, one delinked from national debates over health care, taxation, energy, and farm policy. What would it take to leverage the millions of people who have become engaged in new economy enterprises to be a political force that reshapes the rules governing our national economy? What would a “bottom-up” policy program look like at the state and federal levels?

Flaccavento urges us to move beyond what he calls a “false choice” between local and national issues to recognize “that almost every positive change we make in our own communities is ultimately either undermined or supported by broader economic and political choices.” We cannot coast on a “small is beautiful” community garden project or worker-owned café—not while federal policies push down wages, shift billions to the military, and subsidize corporations that destroy Main Street commerce.

The tools for change that Flaccavento offers in Bottom Up resonate with the social change frameworks of deep-ecology thinker Joanna Macy and Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Read the full article at Yes! Magazine.

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Donald Trump and the Triumph of Anti-Politics

globe-nest-drought-hand-dystopia

(Image: Little Perfect Stock / Shutterstock)

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I testified before the great assembly of our land.

When I describe this event to children today, it really does sound to them like a fairy tale. Once upon a time — a time before the world splintered into a million pieces and America became its current disunited states — this old woman was a young idealist who tried to persuade our mighty Congress that a monster was stalking the land.

“Did they listen to you, Auntie Rachel?” they typically ask me.

“Oh, they listened to me, but they didn’t hear me.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I thought and I thought, and I wrote and I wrote, and I put together an even better presentation,” I say patiently. “I had to somehow make that monster visible so those mighty people could see it.”

“What did it look like, Auntie Rachel?”

“It was invisible, my dear children, but we could feel its hot breath. And we could see the terrible things that it did. It could make the oceans rise. It could make the crops wilt in the fields. Still, we kept feeding this terrible beast.”

“But why?”

“It’s what the monster demanded. Some monsters want to devour little children. Others insist on young maidens. But this one insisted on tankers of oil and truckloads of coal. Even as it grew, it only demanded more and more.”

At this point, the children are always wide-eyed. “What did you do then?”

“I talked to those great people again. And this time I tried even harder to describe the monster.” As I slip into the past, the faces of the children become those of long-dead politicians. “I provided more detailed graphs of rising temperatures. I cited statistics on the impact of burning coal and oil and natural gas. I displayed photos of what the melting ice and the surging waters had already done. And then I showed them pictures of what the future would look like: submerged cities, drought-stricken lands, dead seas. They looked and still they didn’t see. They listened and still they didn’t hear. Great people,” I conclude, “are not always good people.”

“What did you do then?” they always ask.

“I stopped talking, my darlings. I came here to escape the monster. I came to Arcadia.”

They look disappointed. The children know their fairy tales. They expect someone — perhaps a knight in shining armor — to appear suddenly and slay the monster.

“There was no knight,” I lament. “And the monster still lives. We can feel its hot breath even now.”

Of course, my young charges don’t really understand my story. Today, in 2050, there is no Congress. There are no committee hearings. There are no intergovernmental panels or global gatherings. I might as well be telling them about Roman banquets or medieval jousts. And yet my little students always clamor for more stories of the vanished world of Washington, D.C., 2017, just as they would beg for yet another of Aesop’s fables. But they don’t quite see how these tales of long ago connect to their lives today.

After all, they live in a post-political world.

The Death of Politics

Before the global thermometer went haywire, before the great economic panics of the early 2020s, before the battles escalated between vigilantes and jihadis, before the international community cracked like a mirror smashed by a fist, there was that initial death, which was barely noticed at the time.

As the historians — those left to tell the tale — will inform you, there were no funerals for the death of politics, nor were there obituaries. And even if there had been, few would have shed any tears. The confidence the American public had in Congress back in those days was lower than in any other institution — a mere 9% had such confidence, compared to 18% for big business and 73% for the military.

Politics in the muggy swamp of Washington, where I lived in those antediluvian years, had become a tug of war between two hated teams. Sometimes, one side won and dragged the other through the muck. Then the situation would be reversed. No matter: at the end of the day, everyone was left covered in mud.

Yes, things might have turned out differently. Radical reforms might have been enacted, a new generation of politicians cultivated. But at the moment of greatest peril — to the republic and the world at large — Americans turned their backs on politics, electing the most anti-political candidate in the history of the country. The founding fathers had done everything they could to ensure that the system would not produce such a result, but there was no way they could have anticipated Donald Trump or the circumstances that put him in power.

When the initial Europeans arrived in North America more than half a millennium ago, they brought weapons far more powerful than the stone axes and wooden clubs wielded by the First Nations. But it wasn’t just the guns that proved so devastating. The Europeans carried within them something far more lethal: invisible diseases like smallpox and the flu. Those viruses cut through the Native Americans like so many scythes, killing nine out of every ten of the original inhabitants of this continent.

Many centuries later, Donald Trump arrived in Washington armed with the explicit weapons of extremist rhetoric and sociopathic sangfroid with which he had destroyed his political opponents. But it was what he carried hidden within him that would ultimately turn out to be so catastrophic. Although he had railed against the political establishment in the election campaign that put him in the Oval Office, in his own way he had also played by the political rules to get there. Deep down, however, his greatest urge was to destroy politics altogether: tweet by tweet, outrage by outrage.

And his attack on politics would finish off the world as we knew it in Washington circa 2017. In the end, it would render congressional testimony and Congress itself irrelevant. Even today, more than 30 years later, the bodies are still piling up.

The Judgment of Paris

I teach science to the young children here in Arcadia. It’s not difficult to explain the basic scientific concepts that so changed our world, and we have a well-equipped lab for them to run experiments. So they understand the science of climate change. What bewilders them is how the crisis came about.

“Why didn’t our grandparents run the factories every other day?” a bright young girl once asked me. “Why didn’t they drive those stupid cars just on the weekend?”

Our children know little but Arcadia, and this community is fully sustainable. We produce everything we need here in this corner of what was once the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. What we don’t grow, we synthesize or create on our 3-D printers. We conduct limited trade with the few neighboring communities. If there is an unexpected death, we issue another birth permit. If our solar batteries run low during the winter, we ration energy. Everything is recycled, from our chicken bones to our night soil. The children of Arcadia don’t understand waste.

They also don’t understand the now-strange concept of an international community. They’ve never ventured beyond the walls of our little universe.  It’s only thanks to virtual tourism that they’ve seen the world outside, which just reinforces their desire to remain here. After all, the world out there is just a collection of sharp little shards, what my ex-husband used to call the “splinterlands” of this planet. My students can’t comprehend how those shards, most of them exceedingly dangerous micro-environments, once fit together to form larger nations that in turn sometimes cooperated to solve common problems. It’s like that old story of the elephant and the six blind men. The children of Arcadia can understand the parts, but unsurprising enough, given the events of the last three decades, the whole eludes them.

Think of that long-gone international community, I tell them, as a squalling infant born in 1945 to bickering parents. A troubled childhood was followed by an awkward youth. Only in middle age, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, did it finally seem to come into its own, however briefly.  Unfortunately, within a few short years, it was prematurely in its dotage. In 2017, at 72, the international community was past retirement age, in frail health, and in desperate need of assisted care.

Once upon a time, this aged collective creature, this Knight of the Sad Countenance, was supposed to be our savior, the slayer of the horrible monster. When the time came, however, it could barely lift a lance.

Without some knowledge of the life cycle of the international community, my children can’t possibly understand why global temperatures continued to rise in the first part of this century, despite the best efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens. Several countries, Uruguay and Bhutan among them, had gone to extraordinary lengths to reduce their carbon footprint, and more than a dozen cities eventually became carbon neutral. Individuals adopted vegetarianism, drove electric cars, turned down their thermostats in the winter — as if lifestyle changes alone could slay the monster.

Unfortunately, a global problem really did require a global response. The Paris climate accord, which 196 countries signed at the end of 2015, was just such an effort. Only two countries refused to sign, one (Syria) because it was mired in a civil war and the other (Nicaragua) due to sheer cussedness. And yet the terms of the agreement were far from adequate. The international community, which had come together in this twilight of cooperation, well understood the enormity of the challenge: to keep global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average. At best, however, the Paris treaty would have kept temperatures from rising three degrees.  And as everyone now knows, the best was hardly what happened.

In this way did that community abandon the very idea of sustainability and embrace its lesser cousin, resilience. I try to explain to my children that sustainability is all about harmony — maintaining balance, never taking more than what we give back. Resilience, on the other hand, is about making the adaptations required by a crisis, about simply getting by. The judgment of Paris, with its nod toward resilience, was, in fact, an acknowledgment of failure.

Although flawed, it was at least part of a process. That’s what democratic politics is all about, I tell my charges. You have to begin somewhere and hope to improve from there. After all, there’s always the possibility that one day you might even graduate from resilience to sustainability.

But, of course, there’s also the option of going backward, which is exactly what happened, big league — to use an expression of the new American president — in 2017.

The Trump Revolution

It’s an unfortunate fact of our world that destruction is so much easier than construction. Anyone can wield a sledgehammer; few can use a trowel. An inadvertent sneeze can take down the most elaborately built house of cards.

Donald Trump was more than just a sneeze. His devotion to the destruction of the “administrative state” was impressive. At the time, we were all so focused on the domestic side of that destruction — the toppling of the pillars of the welfare state, the repeal of universal health care, the rollback of legal protections and voting rights of all sorts — that we failed to pay proper attention to just how devastatingly that destruction spread internationally.

Yes, the new president cancelled pending trade deals, thumbed his nose at traditional allies, and questioned the utility of agreements like the one that mothballed Iran’s nuclear program. But those were largely bilateral attacks. Much more dangerous were his fierce sallies against the international administrative state.

The most important of these, of course, was his decision to withdraw from the Paris accord. Admittedly, it was a weak, voluntary agreement. Yet even that was too much for Donald Trump. The president declared that the agreement would disadvantage Americans and force workers and taxpayers “to absorb the cost” of reducing greenhouse gas admissions through “lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” It didn’t matter that none of that was true.  Renewable energy programs were creating more well-paying jobs in the United States than the dirty energy industries were trying to maintain.  In his surge of destruction, however, President Trump never felt the need to justify his actions with recourse to actual facts.

The United States, moreover, was both the richest country in the world and historically the largest producer of carbon emissions. As we tell our students here in Arcadia, if you’re most responsible for the mess, you should be most responsible for the clean-up.  It’s a simple concept for children to absorb. Yet it was beyond the ken of most Americans.

Worse than being merely indifferent, the new president was determined to hasten global warming, single-handedly if necessary, by expanding offshore drilling; green-lighting more gas and oil pipelinesreducing restrictions of every imaginable sort on the dirty energy industry; cutting support for the development of alternative energies; encouraging the production of, and reduced emissions standards for, gas-guzzling vehicles; and slashing the budget for the enforcement of environmental standards of every imaginable sort. Trump, in other words, wasn’t just willing to let the buried treasure of fossil fuels well enough alone.  He was eager to feed the monster even more than it demanded.

If we had been living in a normal time, it might have been possible to fight back effectively in political terms against this onslaught. But just as Trump’s carbon-based vision of America and the world was exploding upon us, politics was taken into a backroom and strangled.

The Politics of Antipolitics

I remember the birth of antipolitics. I was a young woman when dissidents in the communist world began to associate official political activity with support for an immoral order. Voting, they believed, was an empty gesture if the ruling party won 99% of the ballots cast. Parliaments were empty vessels if the Party leader and the Politburo always ended up making all the decisions. When politics are compromised in this way, all but the opportunists retreat into antipolitics.

Communism died in 1989, and politics was reborn in those lands of antipolitics — but all too briefly. Within a decade, the new converts to democracy began reverting to their earlier mistrust of anything political and conventional politicians became the enemy.  Collaboration and compromise were once again anathema.

And then this very dissatisfaction with politics as we knew it began spreading beyond the post-communist world. Voters elsewhere became dazzled by the most illiberal of politicians, a crew who were naturals for one-party or one-leader states. Donald Trump was just part of this new fraternity of nationalist populists that included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Viktor Orban of Hungary.  All of them quickly began concentrating power in their own hands in an attempt to rule by decree (or, in Trump’s case, by executive order). In the process, they used antipolitics strategically to defeat any potential challenges at the domestic and transnational level.

It was odd that, in so many countries, voters seemingly couldn’t wait to disenfranchise themselves through this new antipolitics. To a man, these autocrats came to power not through coups but through elections. Odder still was the fact that, in those years, it was increasingly young people who no longer considered it important to live in a democracy. When only the old believe in such a system, then it, too, is but one step from the grave.

Perhaps the culprit was economic. The major parties in these countries had almost uniformly supported policies that widened the gap between rich and poor, robbing young people of jobs and any hope for a future. No surprise, then, that they lost faith in the secular religion of democracy.

Or perhaps technology killed politics. The computer and the cell phone combined to reduce the attention span required for sustained involvement in public affairs. The micro-communities created by social media obviated the need to interact with those who didn’t share one’s own micro-concerns. And of course everyone began to insist on immediate results at a single keystroke, which, at the political level, translated into an increased preference for decrees.

For a brief moment, the Trump “shock” provoked a counter-reaction. In the United States, there were huge protest marches, while unsympathetic government bureaucrats dug in their heels — but this only strengthened the populist narrative of an irresponsible liberal elite and a hostile “deep state.” In this brief moment of seeming reversal, Trump’s allies in Europe even lost a few elections, but the victors in those contests continued policies that disadvantaged the majority economically and politically and in the next round or the one after the predictable happened.

As those of a certain age remember, Trump himself eventually fell from power, undone in the end by his own self-defeating vengefulness.  At that moment, his critics exulted in their schadenfreude, only to find that he was replaced all too soon by someone who shared his destructive anti-politics without his noxious personal traits.

Trump stunned the international community. His successors gutted it.  And as everyone in Earth’s splinterlands now knows, the monster continued to be fed, while the thermometers, floods, droughts, wild fires, sea levels, tides of refugees, and all the rest continued their inexorable rise.

Childhood’s End

Fairy tales should have happy endings. I assure our children that they are safe inside Arcadia. They can see for themselves how successfully we raise our crops. They are far enough from the ocean’s tidal waves not to fear the waters. They participate in the democratic political life of our community. The occasional breakdown notwithstanding, Arcadia is a small island of hope in a sea of despair.

The temperatures continue their climb. Outside, the scramble for resources becomes bloodier by the year. Many of the communities that once dotted the landscape around us are nothing but a memory. The walls surrounding Arcadia may be next to impregnable and our armory remarkably well stocked, but the question remains: Can we survive without our founding members, who are just now beginning to die off?

We raise and educate our children under the threat of the same monster grown larger yet. As they get older, some of the young accuse my generation and me of failing to slay that creature and, unfortunately, they couldn’t be more right. I believe that we, at least here in Arcadia, did do our best, but sadly it wasn’t good enough.

Soon, it will be our children’s turn. They will tend the crops and maintain the armory. They will continue the search for a scientific solution to climate change in the absence of a political one and an international community to enforce it. And they will be the ones who must make sure that the monster, however much it huffs and puffs and threatens our very livelihood, does not in the end blow our house down, too.

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