Later On

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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

WOW!! Rolling Stone has an amazing article up

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Heather Cox Richardson’s post begins:

I had planned to post a picture tonight, but this evening Rolling Stone dropped an exclusive, blockbuster story from reporter Hunter Walker that demands attention.

The story says that two sources who are talking to the January 6th committee about planning the January rallies in Washington, D.C., have talked to Rolling Stone as well. They say they worked with congressional lawmakers and White House officials to plan rallies both in Washington, D.C., and around the country. They deny that they intended to storm the Capitol and imply they got used, which points to the sources being from within Women for America First, the organization that sponsored a bus tour and rallies around the country before heading to Washington for January 6.

They allegedly named Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Mo Brooks (R-AL), Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), and Louie Gohmert (R-TX), as people with whom they planned. They also claim that Gosar promised them a blanket presidential pardon, although they do not say for what.

From the White House team, they singled out then–chief of staff Mark Meadows. “Meadows was 100 percent made aware of what was going on,” one of the sources said.

Katrina Pierson was a key figure in both accounts. She was on Trump’s campaign teams in 2016 and 2020, and worked with the organizers of the rallies before the mob stormed the Capitol.

One of those talking to Rolling Stone said: “It’s clear that . . .

And read Hunter Walker’s article in Rolling Stone.

(For a while, I thought Facebook was blocking links to the article, but it turned out to be merely that Facebook was slow in getting the posts up. No censorship, just sluggish software.)

Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2021 at 4:38 am

More on the new view of humanity’s social structures

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I posted recently about an Atlantic article about a new take on the cultural evolution of human society, drawing on the work of David Graebner and David Wengrow, particularly their book  The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. The Guardian has an extract from that book that’s worth reading. It begins:

n some ways, accounts of “human origins” play a similar role for us today as myth did for ancient Greeks or Polynesians. This is not to cast aspersions on the scientific rigour or value of these accounts. It is simply to observe that the two fulfil somewhat similar functions. If we think on a scale of, say, the last 3m years, there actually was a time when someone, after all, did have to light a fire, cook a meal or perform a marriage ceremony for the first time. We know these things happened. Still, we really don’t know how. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to make up stories about what might have happened: stories which necessarily reflect our own fears, desires, obsessions and concerns. As a result, such distant times can become a vast canvas for the working out of our collective fantasies.

Let’s take just one example. Back in the 1980s, there was a great deal of buzz about a “mitochondrial Eve”, the putative common ancestor of our entire species. Granted, no one was claiming to have actually found the physical remains of such an ancestor, but DNA sequencing demonstrated that such an Eve must have existed, perhaps as recently as 120,000 years ago. And while no one imagined we’d ever find Eve herself, the discovery of a variety of other fossil skulls rescued from the Great Rift Valley in east Africa seemed to provide a suggestion as to what Eve might have looked like and where she might have lived. While scientists continued debating the ins and outs, popular magazines were soon carrying stories about a modern counterpart to the Garden of Eden, the original incubator of humanity, the savanna-womb that gave life to us all.

Many of us probably still have something resembling this picture of human origins in our mind. More recent research, though, has shown it couldn’t possibly be accurate. In fact, biological anthropologists and geneticists are now converging on an entirely different picture. For most of our evolutionary history, we did indeed live in Africa – but not just the eastern savannas, as previously thought. Instead, our biological ancestors were distributed everywhere from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope. Some of those populations remained isolated from one another for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, cut off from their nearest relatives by deserts and rainforests. Strong regional traits developed, so that early human populations appear to have been far more physically diverse than modern humans. If we could travel back in time, this remote past would probably strike us as something more akin to a world inhabited by hobbits, giants and elves than anything we have direct experience of today, or in the more recent past. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 October 2021 at 12:34 pm

Human History Gets a Rewrite

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William Deresiewicz has an interesting article in the Atlantic, which, month after month, seems to be chockablock with interesting articles. Deresiewicz writes:

Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.

Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.

That person was David Graeber. In the 20 years after our lunch, he published two books; was let go by Yale despite a stellar record (a move universally attributed to his radical politics); published two more books; got a job at Goldsmiths, University of London; published four more books, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a magisterial revisionary history of human society from Sumer to the present; got a job at the London School of Economics; published two more books and co-wrote a third; and established himself not only as among the foremost social thinkers of our time—blazingly original, stunningly wide-ranging, impossibly well read—but also as an organizer and intellectual leader of the activist left on both sides of the Atlantic, credited, among other things, with helping launch the Occupy movement and coin its slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”

On September 2, 2020, at the age of 59, David Graeber died of necrotizing pancreatitis while on vacation in Venice. The news hit me like a blow. How many books have we lost, I thought, that will never get written now? How many insights, how much wisdom, will remain forever unexpressed? The appearance of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is thus bittersweet, at once a final, unexpected gift and a reminder of what might have been. In his foreword, Graeber’s co-author, David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, mentions that the two had planned no fewer than three sequels.

And what a gift it is, no less ambitious a project than its subtitle claims. The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau; elaborated by subsequent thinkers; popularized today by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Steven Pinker; and accepted more or less universally. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men.

Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).

It is also, according to Graeber and Wengrow, completely wrong. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries that span the globe, as well as deep reading in often neglected historical sources (their bibliography runs to 63 pages), the two dismantle not only every element of the received account but also the assumptions that it rests on. Yes, we’ve had bands, tribes, cities, and states; agriculture, inequality, and bureaucracy, but what each of these were, how they developed, and how we got from one to the next—all this and more, the authors comprehensively rewrite. More important, they demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring.

The bulk of the book (which weighs in at more than 500 pages) takes us from the Ice Age to the early states (Egypt, China, Mexico, Peru). In fact, it starts by glancing back before the Ice Age to the dawn of the species. Homo sapiens developed in Africa, but it did so across the continent, from Morocco to the Cape, not just in the eastern savannas, and in a great variety of regional forms that only later coalesced into modern humans. There was no anthropological Garden of Eden, in other words—no Tanzanian plain inhabited by “mitochondrial Eve” and her offspring. As for the apparent delay between our biological emergence, and therefore the emergence of our cognitive capacity for culture, and the actual development of culture—a gap of many tens of thousands of years—that, the authors tell us, is an illusion. The more we look, especially in Africa (rather than mainly in Europe, where humans showed up relatively late), the older the evidence we find of complex symbolic behavior.

That evidence and more—from the Ice Age, from later Eurasian and Native North American groups—demonstrate, according to Graeber and Wengrow, that hunter-gatherer societies were far more complex, and more varied, than we have imagined. The authors introduce us to sumptuous Ice Age burials (the beadwork at one site alone is thought to have required 10,000 hours of work), as well as to monumental architectural sites like Göbekli Tepe, in modern Turkey, which dates from about 9000 B.C. (at least 6,000 years before Stonehenge) and features intricate carvings of wild beasts. They tell us of Poverty Point, a set of massive, symmetrical earthworks erected in Louisiana around 1600 B.C., a “hunter-gatherer metropolis the size of a Mesopotamian city-state.” They describe an indigenous Amazonian society that shifted seasonally between two entirely different forms of social organization (small, authoritarian nomadic bands during the dry months; large, consensual horticultural settlements during the rainy season). They speak of the kingdom of Calusa, a monarchy of hunter-gatherers the Spanish found when they arrived in Florida. All of these scenarios are unthinkable within the conventional narrative.

The overriding point is that hunter-gatherers made choices—conscious, deliberate, collective—about the ways that they wanted to organize their societies: to apportion work, dispose of wealth, distribute power. In other words, they practiced politics. Some of them experimented with agriculture and decided that it wasn’t worth the cost. Others looked at their neighbors and determined to live as differently as possible—a process that Graeber and Wengrow describe in detail with respect to the Indigenous peoples of Northern California, “puritans” who idealized thrift, simplicity, money, and work, in contrast to the ostentatious slaveholding chieftains of the Pacific Northwest. None of these groups, as far as we have reason to believe, resembled the simple savages of popular imagination, unselfconscious innocents who dwelt within a kind of eternal present or cyclical dreamtime, waiting for the Western hand to wake them up and fling them into history.

The authors carry this perspective forward to the ages that saw the emergence of farming, of cities, and of kings. In the locations where it first developed, about 10,000 years ago, agriculture did not take over all at once, uniformly and inexorably. (It also didn’t start in only a handful of centers—Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mesoamerica, Peru, the same places where empires would first appear—but more like 15 or 20.) Early farming was typically flood-retreat farming, conducted seasonally in river valleys and wetlands, a process that is much less labor-intensive than the more familiar kind and does not conduce to the development of private property. It was also what the authors call “play farming”: farming as merely one element within a mix of food-producing activities that might include hunting, herding, foraging, and horticulture.

Settlements, in other words, preceded agriculture—not, as we’ve thought, the reverse. What’s more, it took some 3,000 years for . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2021 at 2:10 pm

Seasoned Journalist Uncovers What Most Media Ignore

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Maybe I’ve just become too pessimistic from a diet of daily journalism, with confirmation bias pushing me along: once a person adopts a pessimistic outlook, one can find many anecdotes to support the view.

Here’s another talk by Charles Groenhuijsen:

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2021 at 4:13 pm

Today’s powerful but little-understood artificial intelligence breakthroughs

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Robbert Dijkgraaf writes in Quanta:

Is artificial intelligence the new alchemy? That is, are the powerful algorithms that control so much of our lives — from internet searches to social media feeds — the modern equivalent of turning lead into gold? Moreover: Would that be such a bad thing?

According to the prominent AI researcher Ali Rahimi and others, today’s fashionable neural networks and deep learning techniques are based on a collection of tricks, topped with a good dash of optimism, rather than systematic analysis. Modern engineers, the thinking goes, assemble their codes with the same wishful thinking and misunderstanding that the ancient alchemists had when mixing their magic potions.

It’s true that we have little fundamental understanding of the inner workings of self-learning algorithms, or of the limits of their applications. These new forms of AI are very different from traditional computer codes that can be understood line by line. Instead, they operate within a black box, seemingly unknowable to humans and even to the machines themselves.

This discussion within the AI community has consequences for all the sciences. With deep learning impacting so many branches of current research — from drug discovery to the design of smart materials to the analysis of particle collisions — science itself may be at risk of being swallowed by a conceptual black box. It would be hard to have a computer program teach chemistry or physics classes. By deferring so much to machines, are we discarding the scientific method that has proved so successful, and reverting to the dark practices of alchemy?

Not so fast, says Yann LeCun, co-recipient of the 2018 Turing Award for his pioneering work on neural networks. He argues that the current state of AI research is nothing new in the history of science. It is just a necessary adolescent phase that many fields have experienced, characterized by trial and error, confusion, overconfidence and a lack of overall understanding. We have nothing to fear and much to gain from embracing this approach. It’s simply that we’re more familiar with its opposite.

After all, it’s easy to imagine knowledge flowing downstream, from the source of an abstract idea, through the twists and turns of experimentation, to a broad delta of practical applications. This is the famous “usefulness of useless knowledge,” advanced by Abraham Flexner in his seminal 1939 essay (itself a play on the very American concept of “useful knowledge” that emerged during the Enlightenment).

A canonical illustration of this flow is Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It all began with the fundamental idea that the laws of physics should hold for all observers, independent of their movements. He then translated this concept into the mathematical language of curved space-time and applied it to the force of gravity and the evolution of the cosmos. Without Einstein’s theory, the GPS in our smartphones would drift off course by about 7 miles a day.

But maybe this paradigm of the usefulness of useless knowledge is what the Danish physicist Niels Bohr liked to call a “great truth” — a truth whose opposite is also a great truth. Maybe, as AI is demonstrating, knowledge can also flow uphill.

In the broad history of science, as LeCun suggested, we can spot many examples of this effect, which can perhaps be dubbed “the uselessness of useful knowledge.” An overarching and fundamentally important idea can emerge from a long series of step-by-step improvements and playful experimentation — say, from Fröbel to Nobel.

Perhaps the best illustration is the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics, a cornerstone of all branches of science. These elegant equations, describing the conservation of energy and increase of entropy, are laws of nature, obeyed by all physical phenomena. But these universal concepts only became apparent after a long, confusing period of experimentation, starting with the construction of the first steam engines in the 18th century and the gradual improvement of their design. Out of the thick mist of practical considerations, mathematical laws slowly emerged.

For another example, we can turn to the history of  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2021 at 3:21 pm

Can the U.S. Bring its Supply Chain Back Home?

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Todd Oppenheimer has an interesting piece in Craftsmanship magazine. It begins:

  1. Cutting Taxes and Regulations
  2. Playing Leapfrog
  3. The Hunt for Good Workers
  4. Will Reshored Jobs Last?
  5. Resources for More Information

Almost all of us have now read about, heard about, or directly suffered from the extraordinary shipping delays that have arisen during the COVID pandemic. Some of these hold-ups have been little more than consumer annoyances (that sweater that never arrives, the new bicycle for your 10-year-old’s birthday that’s been stuck at a U.S. port for weeks, floating on some container ship).  Others, however, have been extensive enough to seriously disrupt pillars of the American economy—industries such as construction, auto-making, and medical supplies.

Strangely, despite good prospects that the pandemic is gradually ending, the news and predictions regarding supply-chain troubles seem to only get worse. This does not bode well for the upcoming holiday season, when so many retailers hurt by the pandemic need to see their sales revive.

How can this have happened? The pandemic, it turns out, didn’t actually cause today’s shipping disruptions; it merely brought globalization’s longstanding weaknesses to the surface—and greatly aggravated them. (The vast interconnections behind this problem were well summarized recently by Peter Goodman, a New York Times correspondent, during an Oct. 15th episode of the Times podcast, “The Daily.”)

Boiled down to its essence, today’s supply-chain dilemma primarily stems from how business leaders evaluate different opportunities to lower costs. And, over the last few decades, moving factories overseas seemed like a great way to cut their costs. As we are now seeing, this was always a risky bet. But the money was so good, few executives could resist the gamble.

Today, Harry Moser often finds himself having to restrain from saying, “I told you so.” Moser is the founder of The Reshoring Initiative, a Florida-based organization dedicated to bringing manufacturing back to America. And he believes the reason that more business leaders don’t follow that path is that they don’t accurately do the math.

When the offshoring movement first began, way back in the 1960s, Chinese factory workers were being paid the abysmal wages often quoted by people like Bernie Sanders: an average of 50 cents an hour. But those wages have been rising every year—as China’s economy has grown, as its people have gotten richer, and as its manufacturing skills have improved.

Today, U.S. industries have to pay Chinese laborers an average of $7 an hour. That is still a meager wage, but when those labor costs get added to the troubles with doing business overseas—the constant miscommunications, the difficulty supervising production, the often substandard quality, the returns, the risk of intellectual property theft (read knock-offs), the cultural resistance to innovation, the frequent labor turnover, the long-distance shipping costs (and the carbon emissions that result), the delayed shipments from overseas to a market demanding increasingly fast deliveries (obviously exacerbated by the pandemic), the downside of minimal regulation in foreign countries, the political instability there, and the negative publicity that offshoring generates—all of a sudden, building a new U.S. factory starts to look pretty good.

In dollars and cents, according to The Reshoring Initiative, those extra factors add 15 to 25 percent to the cost of any item made in an overseas factory. So, in the end, maybe cheap Chinese labor isn’t so cheap after all.

Given offshoring’s many pitfalls, why didn’t American business leaders see them coming? It turns out that for many years, those pitfalls were somewhat hidden. During a U.S. executive’s first meetings with overseas contractors, Moser says, he or she is likely to be shown some impressive prototypes, manufactured by a relatively skilled production team. By the time the second and third rounds of deliveries are made, the quality of the materials has declined. And, as Moser puts it, “the work isn’t being done by the A-team anymore. The plant now has its C-team on the job.”

As this paradigm played out (making it clear that there’s still no free lunch), more and more companies started to “reshore” operations that they once gleefully offshored. Over the last decade, according to data Moser has compiled, the U.S. has gone from losing approximately 140,000 manufacturing jobs each year to regaining more than 1,000,000 jobs since Moser’s project first launched, in 2010.

Interestingly, while there was a surge in reshored jobs under the Trump administration, thanks to its tax cuts and deregulation, it looks like even more jobs are being brought back to U.S. soil under the Biden administration. In 2021, for example, the U.S. is on pace to reshore 220,000 jobs, an all time record, 38 percent higher than was achieved in the last year of the Trump administration.

Moser believes that in 2021, much of the reshoring increase has been caused by the subsidies and tax breaks Biden has offered to stimulate manufacturing of crucial goods, such as semiconductors and electric vehicles. Moser, who calls himself “a good Republican,” considers Biden’s forms of stimulus “superficial,” and thus lacking long-term power. One could also argue that cutting taxes and regulations isn’t a great long-term solution either. While that’s obviously a separate discussion, the fact that each president has felt the need to give U.S. industry a little extra help highlights the structural weaknesses in our economy—and our overdependence on other countries.

Some examples: According to the Reshoring Initiative’s most recent data, 80 percent of  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2021 at 1:45 pm

Vikings lived in North America by at least the year 1021

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Bruce Bower reports in Science News:

Vikings inhabited North America exactly 1,000 years ago, a new study finds.

Counting tree rings reveals that wooden objects previously found at an archaeological site on Newfoundland’s northern peninsula were made from trees felled in the year 1021. That’s the oldest precise date for Europeans in the Americas and the only one from before Christopher Columbus’ voyages in 1492, geoscientists Margot Kuitems and Michael Dee and colleagues report October 20 in Nature.

Researchers have assumed that Norse Vikings built and lived at the site, called L’Anse aux Meadows, roughly 1,000 years ago. But earlier attempts to more precisely date the settlement, which included three dwellings and other structures made of timber and turf and is now a UNESCO historic site, were inconclusive. Evidence of a possible second Viking settlement in Newfoundland from around 1,000 years ago remains preliminary (SN: 4/1/16).

The new study focused on four wooden objects found at L’Anse aux Meadows, which was first excavated in the 1960s. It’s not clear how the objects were used, but each had been cut with metal tools. On three of the finds, Kuitems and Dee, both of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and their team identified an annual tree growth ring that displayed a signature spike in radiocarbon levels. Other researchers have dated that spike to the year 993, when a surge of cosmic rays from solar activity bombarded Earth and increased the planet’s atmospheric levels of radioactive carbon.

Counting growth rings out to the edge of each wooden object starting . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

21 October 2021 at 10:52 am

Posted in Daily life, History, Science

Slinging a Cestrosphendone dart

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Pretty cool.

Written by Leisureguy

20 October 2021 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Daily life, History, Video

Political spark that ignited firestorm across dry, divided land

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Evan Osnos writes of his book, Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury:

This book is the story of a crucible, a period bounded by two assaults on the country’s sense of itself: the attack on New York and Washington, on September 11, 2001, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, on January 6, 2021.

The Harvard Gazette has an excerpt from the book:

On a hillside three hours north of San Francisco, a rancher waded through a meadow that rustled with golden grass. His name was Glenn Kile, and he lived in a sliver of the American West so blessed by nature that indigenous people called it Ba-lo Kai — the “verdant valley.” But on this day, the terrain was merciless. The temperature was 103 degrees, and it had been in the triple digits for days. All of the hottest summers in California history had arrived in the past 20 years, and the fields of the verdant valley had acquired the bone-dry smell and snap of straw.

A hundred feet from his house, the rancher stopped at the sight of a small hole in the gray-black soil at his feet. It was the mouth of an underground wasps’ nest. He lifted a steel hammer and pounded a rusty iron stake into the hole to seal it. But the clash of metal on metal spat out a spark, and the spark struck the field, and the field began to burn.

In half an hour, the inferno was 20 acres wide and racing toward a horizon of dried-out forests and scattered homes, a terrain that firefighters call “wildland” — a realm of nearly perfect tinder that is less a place than a condition. The rancher’s spark ignited the largest wildland fire in the history of California, a record that would soon be broken and then broken again. They named it the Mendocino Complex Fire, and it raged for a month — a jet engine of wind and flame, consuming an area more than twice the size of New York City, a landmark in the annals of a warming world. When, at last, the inferno was extinguished, the state of California ruled that Kile was not liable for the catastrophe. He had lit the spark, but the roots of the disaster ran deeper. The fire was the culmination of forces that had been gathering for decades.

That story reminded me of an old line about politics, from a book by the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong. “A single spark,” Mao wrote, “can start a prairie fire.” Mao knew little of America, but he knew brutal truths about politics. Living in Washington in the years of Donald Trump, I often thought about that image of a landscape primed to burn. Sometimes it felt like metaphor, and sometimes it felt like fact. But eventually I came to understand it as something else — a parable for a time in American history when the land and the people seemed to be mirroring the rage of the other.

I left the United States a little over a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The country was preparing to go to war in Iraq, and I reported from Baghdad, Cairo, and elsewhere in the Middle East. A few years later, I settled in Beijing, where I met Sarabeth Berman, from Massachusetts, who had gone abroad as a young producer of theater and dance. We married and eventually prepared to go home. If we stayed abroad too long, Sarabeth said, we would find it hard to go back at all.

In 2013 we made plans to move to Washington. Coming home always holds the promise of a new way of seeing. In the 1940s, after covering the war in Europe, author John Gunther returned to America. At times he felt like “the man from Mars,” he wrote in “Inside U.S.A.,” published in 1947. In Gunther’s case, some features of his home unnerved him; the segregation of the South “out-ghettoes anything I ever saw in a European ghetto, even in Warsaw,” he wrote. But other encounters thrilled him. On his travels across the country, he took to asking people, “What do you believe in most?” He was told: work, children, Thomas Jefferson, God, the golden rule, the Pythagorean theorem, a high tariff, a low tariff, better agricultural prices, happiness, good roads, and Santa Claus. But the most frequent response was, as he put it, “the people, if you give them an even break.”

Sarabeth and I landed at Dulles International Airport on July 7, 2013. At passport control, I picked up a brochure with the title “Welcome to the United States.” It was published by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, and it had a cover photo of the Washington Monument and cherry trees in bloom. The brochure began, “We are glad that you decided to travel to the United States to visit, study, work, or stay.”

I started keeping track of changes that had taken place during my years away, including some tiny details. Walking by the window of Brooks Brothers, the suit-maker, I noticed that it was selling suits with flag pins preattached to the lapel. A corporate spokesman told me that it was intended to advertise suits made in America. The company had adopted the practice in 2007, when Republicans were lambasting then-President Barack Obama for not wearing a flag pin.

Other changes felt so vast it was difficult to grasp their full dimensions. In 2013, the United States passed a threshold in the long evolution of immigration and diversity: For the first time in American history, the number of nonwhite newborns surpassed the number of white newborns. Initially, the gap was barely perceptible, no more than a thousand out of more than 3.8 million babies born that year. But it began to grow. As the son of a refugee, I considered it an exhilarating milestone, a mark of renewal, but I could see that many other Americans did not.

In the case of some changes, I was most startled by how thoroughly people had adapted to them. I was waiting for an Amtrak train one morning when a video screen in the station’s boarding area started playing a public-service announcement. If someone started firing at us, the voice-over explained, we should “take flight” or “take cover.” On the screen, an actor with white hair and a blue blazer huddled behind a pillar. As a last resort, it said, take action: “Yell, and look for surrounding objects, including your belongings, to throw and use as improvised weapons.”

Mass shootings were happening, on average, every nine weeks — nearly three times as often as a decade earlier. Barely six months had passed since the most heart-wrenching: a 20-year-old in Newtown, Connecticut, had killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But in American politics, that event had already faded. Politicians had offered “thoughts and prayers,” but an effort to pass new gun-control measures had failed in Congress. When I glanced around the waiting area, people were absorbed in other things. I felt like Gunther’s man from Mars.

The country had responded in very different fashion to the trauma of September 11, 2001. When Al Qaeda destroyed the towers of the World Trade Center, the historian Tony Judt wrote: “From my window in lower Manhattan, I watched the 21st century begin.” Twelve years later, the event had acquired a unique symbolic power. In the years since, Americans had been attacked more than twice as many times by far-right terrorists as they had by Islamic terrorists, yet when researchers in 2016 asked people to estimate the share of Muslims in the country, Americans, on average, estimated one in six. The real number was one in a 100.

I began to notice how far fear was reaching into our political life. Before going abroad, I had lived in Clarksburg, West Virginia, a small Appalachian city where I worked at the local paper, The Exponent Telegram. The day after September 11, the editors had published a humble declaration of commitment to a story Americans tell ourselves: “Far be it for a small-town daily newspaper to suggest what the government’s reaction should be,” they wrote, but one thing must be clear: “We are a free society, which prides itself on its diversity, its exchange of ideas and its willingness to tolerate dissent”; the attacks must “strengthen our ideals rather than shatter them.” That month, after someone desecrated a mosque in the West Virginia city of Princeton — the vandals drew the picture of a lynching and the name “Jamaal”— neighbors rallied in the mosque’s defense, and the response became a point of local pride.

But by 2008, a poll showed that one-fifth of the public in West Virginia believed that Obama was a Muslim, and hate crimes, which had subsided after 2001, were climbing, according to the FBI. In 2013, someone vandalized the mosque again, but the local reaction was quieter that time. Churches condemned the assault, but the sheriff said the incident did not meet the threshold of a hate crime. Muslims who had lived in West Virginia for generations described a growing sense of isolation. (Four years later, during a Republican Party rally in the West Virginia Capitol, someone hung a poster of the burning World Trade Center and a photo of Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of the first Muslim women in Congress. The caption read, “I am the proof you have forgotten.”)

Those fissures in American life were part of a larger fracturing. The United States had the largest economy in the world, with median incomes higher than they had ever been, but the living standards for millions of people had stagnated or declined. Twenty-seven states were so short of cash to fix potholes that they were returning some of their paved roads to dirt. At the same time, three men — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos — had more wealth than the entire bottom half of the U.S. population combined. Every hour, Bezos earned $149,353 — which was more than the typical American worker earned in three years.

When scientists reported the startling fact that life expectancy was declining, it sounded like a national problem. But it was not. In West Virginia’s McDowell County, male life expectancy had sunk to 64 — a level on a par with Iraq. In neighboring Virginia, men in Fairfax County could expect to live 18 years longer. The chasms between American lives had become so vast that the vanishing common ground could no longer carry the weight of American institutions, a prospect that the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned against when he told a friend, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

America wasn’t just losing a story of itself; it was losing a habit of mind, a . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

20 October 2021 at 10:05 am

Ricky Jay

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Ricky Jay was amazing. Here are two:

Written by Leisureguy

19 October 2021 at 7:38 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, History

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Bill Maher on the slow-moving coup

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Maher summarizes the situation:

1. Trump will run for President in 2024.
2. He will win the Republican nomination.
3. When the polls close, Trump will declare that he has won (regardless of the count).
4. Election officials now being put in place by Trumpist Republicans will declare enough local Trump victories to give Trump the Electoral College votes he needs.

The situation in the US is dire, and I don’t think it’s being addressed. Democrats in Congress cannot bring themselves to act effectively, and election reform is key to saving US democracy. It is not happening.

Watch Maher’s monologue.

Written by Leisureguy

18 October 2021 at 11:33 am

Texas authoritarians take over school curriculum

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Thought control comes to Texas, courtesy of the GOP. Heather Cox Richardson describes how Texas is working to ensure public ignorance of US history. George Orwell described in 1984 what Texas is doing now — I wonder whether teachers in Texas can assign that book.

On October 8, the executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, told a teacher to make sure to follow Texas’s new law requiring teachers to present opposing views on controversial subjects. The Carroll school board had recently reprimanded a fourth-grade teacher who had kept an anti-racism book in her classroom, and teachers wanted to know what books they could keep in their own classrooms.

“Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979,” the curriculum director said. “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust,” the director continued, “that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”

The Holocaust was Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of about two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population—about six million people—during World War II.

“How do you oppose the Holocaust?” one teacher said.

“Believe me,” the director said. “That’s come up.”

The Texas legislature passed another law that is going into effect in December. S.B. 3, known as the Critical Race Theory bill. It specifies what, exactly, social studies courses should teach to students. Those guidelines present a vision of how American citizens should perceive their nation.

They should have “an understanding of the fundamental moral, political, and intellectual foundations of the American experiment in self-government; the history, qualities, traditions, and features of civic engagement in the United States; the structure, function, and processes of government institutions at the federal, state, and local levels.”

But they should get that information in a specific way: through the Declaration of Independence; the United States Constitution; the Federalist Papers, including Essays 10 and 51; excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; the transcript of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate; and the writings of the founding fathers of the United States; the history and importance of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964; and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

While they managed to add in de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America—and I would be shocked if more than a handful of people have ever read that account of early America—there are some pointed omissions from this list. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees Black voting, didn’t make it, although the Nineteenth Amendment, which grants women the right to vote, did. Also missing is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, although the Civil Rights Act of the previous year is there.

Topics explicitly eliminated from the teaching standard are also instructive. Those things cut from the standards include: “the history of Native Americans,” and “[founding] mothers and other founding persons.”

Under “commitment to free speech and civil discourse,” topics struck from the standards include  “the writings of…George Washington; Ona Judge (a woman Washington enslaved and who ran away); Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings (the enslaved woman Jefferson took as a sexual companion after the death of his wife, her half-sister),” and “any other founding persons of the United States.”

The standards lost Frederick Douglass’s writings, the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forced Indigenous Americans off their southeastern lands, and Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists defending the separation of church and state. The standards lost “historical documents related to the civic accomplishments of marginalized populations” including documents related to the Chicano movement, women’s suffrage and equal rights, the civil rights movement, Indigenous rights, and the American labor movement.

The standards also lost “the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong” and “the history and importance of the civil rights movement.” The legislature took three pages to outline all the things that teachers may not teach, including all the systemic biases the right associates with Critical Race Theory (although that legal theory is not taught in K–12 schools), and anything having to do with the 1619 Project.

Teachers cannot be forced to teach current events or controversial issues, but if they choose to do so, they must “strive to explore that topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” Supporters of the measure said that teachers should teach facts and not “choose sides.”

The lawmakers who wrote the new standards said they had been crafted to eliminate redundancy. In 2019, the state wrote standards to teach character traits—courage, integrity and honesty—and instructions to include particular people or events could simply duplicate those concepts. “If you want to talk about courage, talk about George Washington crossing the Delaware, or William Barret Travis defending the Alamo,” a member of the state board of education said.

Editing from our history Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the National Farmworkers’ Association—she was eliminated by name—as well as Abigail Adams and Frederick Douglass and the 1924 Snyder Act (by which the nation recognized Indigenous citizenship) does more than whitewash our history. That editing warps what it means to be an American.

Our history is not about  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 October 2021 at 5:36 am

How — and Why — Trump Will Win Again

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The future is notoriously difficult to predict accurately (though inaccurate predictions abound), buI fear this post by Umair Haque might well prove accurate:

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

14 October 2021 at 5:09 pm

Heather Cox Richardson on the slow-moving coup being carried out now in the US

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Richardson writes in her column tonight:

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post today ran op-eds from Republicans or former Republicans urging members of their party who still value democracy to vote Democratic until the authoritarian faction that has taken over their party is bled out of it.

In the New York Times, Miles Taylor and Christine Todd Whitman wrote, “We are Republicans. There’s only one way to save our party from pro-Trump extremists.” Taylor served in the Department of Homeland Security and was the author of the 2018 New York Times piece by “Anonymous” criticizing former president Trump. Whitman was governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001, after which she headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush.

Taylor and Whitman note that “rational Republicans” had hoped after Trump’s defeat that they might take back the party, but it is clear now, they write, that they are losing the party’s “civil war.” But while they originally hoped to form a new party, they now agree that the only way to stop Trumpism “is for us to form an alliance with Democrats to defend American institutions, defeat far-right candidates, and elect honorable representatives next year—including a strong contingent of moderate Democrats.” To defend democracy, they write, “concerned conservatives must join forces with Democrats on the most essential near-term imperative: blocking Republican leaders from regaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives” and the Senate.

They call for Republicans to put country over party and back moderate Democrats, while also asking Democrats to concede that “there are certain races where progressives simply cannot win and acknowledg[e] that it makes more sense to throw their lot in with a center-right candidate who can take out a more radical conservative.”

At the Washington Post, Max Boot takes an even stronger stand: “I’m no Democrat—but I’m voting exclusively for Democrats to save our democracy.” Boot is a Russian-American specialist in foreign affairs who identifies as a conservative but no longer supports the Republican Party. He writes: “I’m a single-issue voter. My issue is the fate of democracy in the United States. Simply put, I have no faith that we will remain a democracy if Republicans win power. Thus, although I’m not a Democrat, I will continue to vote exclusively for Democrats—as I have done in every election since 2016—until the GOP ceases to pose an existential threat to our freedom.”

Boot singles out the dueling reports from the Senate Judiciary Committee about the nine ways in which Trump tried to pressure then–acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen to back his claims of election fraud. The Democrats on the committee established these efforts with an evidence-based report, only to have the Republicans on the committee, led by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), respond that the president was simply trying to promote confidence in the election results and that since he did not ultimately replace Rosen with another lawyer who promised to use the Justice Department to challenge the election—after the other leaders of the Justice Department threatened to resign in a mass protest—he did not actually abuse his office.

Boot writes, “It is mind-boggling that a defeated president won’t accept the election outcome…. What is even more alarming is that more than 60 percent of Republicans agree with his preposterous assertion that the election was stolen and want him to remain as the party’s leader.”

Taylor, Whitman, and Boot are hardly the first to be calling out the anti-democratic consolidation of the Republican Party. Yesterday, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, managed Trump’s first impeachment trial, and sits on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, gave an interview to CBS’s Face the Nation in which he called the Republican Party “an autocratic cult around Donald Trump” that is “not interested in governing” or “maintaining the solvency of the country.”

But what makes today’s op-eds stand out is that they are from former Republicans, that they are calling not for a separate party but for Republicans to shift their votes to the Democrats, and that their identification of the Republicans as an existential threat to our democracy is being published in major newspapers.

Mainstream television and newspapers have been slow to identify the radicalization of the Republican Party as a threat to democracy. The Eastman memo, uncovered by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa at the end of September in their new book Peril, flew largely under the radar screen, explained away as more of Trump being Trump even as it laid out, in writing, the steps to overturn the 2020 election and even as we knew that the former president tried to put that plan into place. A study by Media Matters showed that ABC, NBC, and CBS all chose not even to mention the memo; they reach more than 20 million Americans.

On Saturday, a monologue by comedian Bill Maher about the Eastman memo titled “Slow Moving Coup” laid out in 8 minutes how Trump tried to steal the 2020 election and how, when officials resisted him, he set out to solidify his power for 2024. Maher woke people up to the ongoing crisis in our democracy.

Maher’s monologue, along with the draft Senate Judiciary Committee report, which sets out in detail the efforts the former president made to bend the Department of Justice to his will, seems to have driven home to members of the press the fact that they cannot present today’s news as business as usual, especially after their presentation of the debt ceiling crisis as a political horse race when one side was trying to save the country and the other to destroy it. In the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday, journalist Will Bunch wrote: “The future of American democracy depends, frankly, on whether journalists stop burying their head in ‘the work’ of balanced-but-misleading reporting and admit that, yes, actually, we are at war.”

Bunch pointed out that on Friday, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

11 October 2021 at 9:32 pm

A rerun for Columbus Day

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Worth another look. The White House that issued the proclamation, kindly corrected by Justin Cowen, was the Trump White House (for Columbus Day just before the 2020 election). Here’s the correction.

Written by Leisureguy

11 October 2021 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Daily life, History

A chilling look at what is happening — again — in the US: The breakdown of the Union

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I highly recommend reading Heather Cox Richardson’s complete post. Here I quote the conclusion:

. . . Last night, in Iowa, Trump held a “rally.” Mainstream Republican officials, including Senator Chuck Grassley, Governor Kim Reynolds, and Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Ashley Hinson, attended. Right on cue, a Trump supporter told a reporter: “We’re just sick of it, you know, and we’re not going to take it any more. I see a civil war coming….”

Today’s split in the Republican Party mirrors the split in the Democrats in 1860. The leadership is made up of extremists who consider their opponents illegitimate, maintain they alone understand the Constitution, and are skewing the mechanics of our electoral system to keep themselves in power. In 1860, the Democratic Party split, its moderates joining with the fledgling Republicans to defend the United States of America.

Then, as now, the radicals calling for the destruction of the nation were a shrinking minority desperate to cling to power. Then they took up arms to divide the nation in two and keep power in their part of it; now they are launching a quieter war simply by rigging future elections to conquer the whole nation.

Written by Leisureguy

11 October 2021 at 11:03 am

The Supreme Court has heard thousands of cases on appeal since its establishment in 1789. How many times has it conducted a criminal trial?

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The New Republic had a good Morning Quiz in its newsletter this morning. The post title asks the question. Write your answer of a small scrap of paper, fold it twice, then set it aside before reading what the newsletter says:

Answer: Just once, United States v. Shipp. In 1906, an all-white Tennessee jury convicted Ed Johnson, a Black man accused of raping a white woman, and sentenced him to death on dubious evidence and unconvincing testimony. Johnson’s lawyers asked the federal courts to intervene, arguing that his trial was unconstitutional. His petition eventually reached the Supreme Court, where Justice John Marshall Harlan replied with a telegram that said the court would hear his case. When news reached Chattanooga of Harlan’s intervention, a mob stormed the jail—allegedly with the passive or active help of Sheriff Joseph Shipp—and lynched Johnson on the Walnut Street Bridge.

The justices (and the Roosevelt administration) were furious at the mob’s defiance of the Supreme Court’s authority. They brought contempt of court charges against Shipp and several others and held a trial to determine their guilt—the only time that the court has done so in its entire history. Shipp received a 90-day jail sentence from the court and returned to Tennessee as a hero after serving it. A state judge later overturned Johnson’s conviction in 2000.

Written by Leisureguy

11 October 2021 at 10:46 am

A society must invest in itself for long-term success

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Umair Haque writes in Medium:

Continue reading. There’s more.

Right now Democrats in Congress — most of them, anyway — are trying to move forward on a large and good investment in American, the infrastructure bill, but Republicans simply do not want to invest in our society because, in their view, society is made up of “other people” and Republicans want investment for themselves (the wealthy and powerful).

Written by Leisureguy

10 October 2021 at 8:16 am

The Libertarian James Bond

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Reason, a publication with a libertarian outlook, occasionally has something good, but the libertarian bias often leads the astray — and not just them: Sears, a giant of retail, was utterly destroyed by  a switch to libertarian free-market principles. From the post at the link:

[T]he overriding cause of Sears’s malaise is the disastrous decision by the company’s chairman and CEO, Edward Lampert, to disaggregate the company’s different divisions into competing units: to create an internal market.

Lampert did that in a sincere belief that an unrestrained free market maximizes efficiency and solves every problem, a basic principle that any dyed-in-the-wool libertarian will be happy to prove to you with iron-clad logic — but as Niels Bohr once objected, “No, no, you’re not thinking, you’re just being logical.” And Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr., at the very beginning of his first lecture in The Common Law, noted, “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.” 

Nonetheless, I thought this video was amusing (though the angst over the national debt and the earnest desire to return to the gold standard are both serious errors).

Written by Leisureguy

8 October 2021 at 6:08 pm

“Love Letter to America,” a memoir by Tomas Schuman, the pseudonym of Yuri Bezmenov

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David Perell today wrote in his newsletter Friday Finds:

Ideological Subversion: Yuri Bezmenov was a Soviet journalist and a former KGB informant who defected and moved to Canada. He issued a warning to America in a 1985 interview, where he explained how US public opinion could be manipulated. Most frighteningly, he says that under a state of ideological subversion where a person becomes demoralized, new evidence won’t change people’s minds. Under the pen name Tomas D. Schuman, he also wrote a book called Love Letter to America, which is strangely hard to find online.

The link is to this video of a 1985 interview with Bezmenov. 

You can download Love Letter to America (as PDF or text) from Scribd. It looks like an interesting memoir, published in 1984. I downloaded it as PDF, which I can read in Acrobat Reader (changing the default setting to allow smooth scrolling, and upping the magnification a fair bit). I also added it to my Calibre library, converting it from PDF to AZW3, Amazon’s Kindle format. (Calibre offers a broad range of choices for file conversion.) 

Love Letter to America begins:

Dear Americans,

My name is Tomas David Schuman. I am what you may call a “defector” from the USSR. and I have a message for you: love you very much. I love all of you liberals and conservatives, “decadent capitalists” and “oppressed masses”. blacks and whites and browns and yellows, rednecks and intellectuals. For me you are the people who created a unique nation, country and society in the history of mankind, by no means a perfect one, but, let’s face it the most free, affluent and just in today’s world. am not alone in this love. People all over the Earth, whether they praise America or bitterly criticize her, look upon you as the only hope for mankind’s survival and the last stronghold of freedom. Some may not think in these idealistic terms, but they certainly enjoy the fruits of your civilization, often forgetting to be grateful for them. Millions of people in the so-called “socialist camp™ or in the “Third World” literally owe their lives to America.

As a war-time child, survived partly thanks to such “decadent capitalist” (as the Soviets say) things as “Spam” meat, condensed milk and egg powder that were supplied to my country by the USA through the lend-lease program of World War II. In the Soviet Union we secretly but proudly called ourselves “the Spam generation”. Too prosaic? Who cares about “Spam’ in today’s USA, apart from “underprivileged welfare recipients? Well, for me these foods are not merely the nostalgic delight of my troubled childhood, but rather, a symbol of love from a friend when I was in need. No amount of communist propaganda against America has ever been able to convince me that the United States out to colonze and exploi will tell you many people have been more than willing to be “exploited” the American way. For what other reason have thousands risked their lives, gone to unimaginable troubles, left behind their families their motherland and traditional ways of life to come to America? Have you ever heard of “illegal aliens” risking their lives crossing the border at midnight into Socialist USSR? Or the “boat people” swimming oceans and drowning by the thousands just to reach the shores of Communist China? Or defectors like me, leaving behind relative affluence and risking bullets in the back in order to join the “progressive workers paradise” in Russia? No, we all come here to America, obviously willing to be “exploited by capitalists” and enjoy *oppression” together with you. Because we believe and KNOW — America IS A BETTER place.

I am writing this not to please you with words you want to hear. The rest of my message may be more unpleasant to you than even Communist propaganda, or more offensive than the speeches of “leaders” in Kremlin. But as a true friend of America, I want to help.

My dear friends, think you are in big trouble. Whether you believe it or not, YOU ARE AT WAR. And you may lose this war very soon, together with all your affluence and freedoms, unless you start defending yourselves. I hope you have noticed on your color televisions that there is in fact war going on right now all over this planet. This war has many faces, but it’s all the same it’s war. Some call it “national liberation’ “, some title it “class struggle” or “political terrorism’ Others call it “anticolonialism’ or “*struggle for majority rule”. Some even come up with such fancy names as “war of patriotic forces” or peace movement”. call it World Communist Aggression.

I know what I am talking about, because was on the side of the aggressor before I decided to take YOUR side. I do not believe KNOW that in this war no one is being “liberated, decolonised or made equal”, as Soviet doctrine proclaims. You may notice, if you give yourselves the trouble to observe, that the only “equality” and . . .

Written by Leisureguy

8 October 2021 at 5:40 pm

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