US Outbreak: How Monkeypox Spread in a Failing State

The new order of our times seems to be that everything must get worse. Because one plague was not enough, we’ve added another: monkeypox, a close relative of smallpox that causes flu-like symptoms and painful, pus-filled blisters. Making matters even worse, it’s spreading primarily in gay communities, giving new life to old bigotries and complicating public health messaging.

Formerly endemic to West and Central Africa, monkeypox is now circulating globally, including significant outbreaks in the US and Europe. As of August 1, the case count stands at some 30,000 worldwide and 6,000 in the US, though the numbers multiply daily. The disease spreads most easily by close physical contact, particularly with the rash or pus of an infected person, but may also be transmissible by air. Anybody can be infected, but the reported cases have overwhelmingly been in gay and bisexual men, who account for as much as 98% of the current outbreak, according to one study.

Last month, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox “a public health emergency of international concern.” Health officials are cautiously optimistic that we can still contain the outbreak if we act quickly and aggressively. However, in keeping with the American tradition of doing nothing until a problem is out of control and then doing less than the bare minimum, we are acting neither quickly nor aggressively.

President Biden has been contemplating for weeks whether to declare a national emergency. Taking this long to consider whether a situation is an emergency is almost comical. The whole point is to mobilize resources and stop the problem before it spreads. A small fire may not do much damage, but it gets bigger. New York, California, and Illinois, the states with the largest outbreaks, have declared public health emergencies.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters, “We have done everything we can at the federal level.” Loosely translated, this means, “We haven’t done much of anything, nor do we plan to.” The federal government’s plan is apparently to leave the situation up to states and individuals.

Individual decisions do play a role in halting any disease. But relying on individuals alone, or on state and local health authorities, is not enough. Not everyone has the education they need to understand the risks, and access to vaccines and testing is dismal. By not taking swifter, more aggressive action, the federal government is leaving Americans at the mercy of states with fewer health resources or less interest in protecting the health of gay men.

What makes this all so frustrating is that monkeypox vaccines do exist. The US has hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of doses that it has simply not deployed. While monkeypox ripped through gay communities, the US allowed 300,000 perfectly usable doses of the Jynneos vaccine to sit in Denmark. The US has 100 million doses of ACAM2000, a smallpox vaccine that’s also effective against monkeypox, but it’s been slow to deploy those, too. Only after watching the outbreak spiral out of control did the government import and order more vaccines, but these may not be ready for months.

Vulnerable people in cities across the country have reported long lines, inadequate testing, and widespread misdiagnosis – if they’re able to get any medical attention at all. There are, of course, plenty of complicating factors. Healthcare professionals are badly strained from battling COVID-19 for more than two years. But the issues with vaccine shortages, shipments, and bureaucratic red tape could all theoretically be overcome by decisive executive action – if only we had a decisive executive in the White House.

Our system itself is the biggest obstacle. Capitalism simply isn’t designed to solve social problems. Its only purpose is to make money. If our society was oriented around solving problems, we would immediately increase vaccine production, ramp up distribution and vaccination efforts, and educate people. In 1959, the Soviet Union contained a smallpox outbreak in just 19 days. If we wanted to, we could do the same with monkeypox. But confronting a disease outbreak requires collective action, a dirty thought in US society.

The public health message here is also tricky. While there are increasing reports of spread into other communities, monkeypox still seems to be overwhelmingly spread by men with multiple partners. It appears that raves and sex parties have been especially fertile breeding grounds. In contrast to previous outbreaks, the rashes and blisters have often appeared on the genitals or in the anus, causing immense pain and difficulty sitting or using the toilet – and giving doctors some clues where the close skin-to-skin contact may be taking place.

None of this means that the population is dirty, or responsible for this public health crisis. All it means is that they need access to medical care, and need to be the focus of vaccination and education campaigns. Unfortunately, it’s provided an opportunity for the religious right to blame some of their favorite targets. The media has a hard time finding balance, either inferring that monkeypox is an STI for gay men – which isn’t true – or bending over backwards to avoid potentially politically incorrect facts, which may prevent the community from getting the attention they need.

Luckily, there are some silver linings. Monkeypox is not especially contagious. Its spread is nowhere near as fast as COVID, nor will it ever be. While some patients have experienced unbearable symptoms and lonely, month-long quarantines, other reports show this strain is relatively mild. Few have died, and none in the US. The disease doesn’t spread easily on contaminated surfaces and may be difficult to transmit asymptomatically. We already have effective vaccines available, and could halt a lot of spread by vaccinating vulnerable communities.

This is not a problem that we want to sit back and watch, as we have so far. Like COVID, the more monkeypox spreads, the more potential there is for newer, vaccine-resistant mutations to emerge. And the more it gets into other communities, the more vicious the anti-gay sentiment could become. By the time Biden decides whether it’s an emergency, it could become a catastrophe. We could solve the problem relatively easily – if, that is, we were capable of solving anything at all.

Why Overturning Roe Could Be the Last Straw for Many

On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that has been the focus of America’s abortion debate since 1973. In that decision, the 1973 court ruled that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion, with some limits. By overturning that decision, today’s court leaves abortion laws up to individual states, allowing them to ban abortion under any circumstances and at any point during pregnancy. In doing so, the Supreme Court has placed millions of women across the country at grave risk.

How Democrats Dropped the Ball on Choice

Though the decision was leaked almost two months ago, it was met with outrage from pro-choice Americans when formally announced. Much of the rage has been directed at Democrats – and for good reason. Despite often placing abortion protection at the center of campaign messaging, Democrats in power have done very little to safeguard Roe.

As a candidate in 2007, Barack Obama promised that the first thing he’d do as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. After he took office, the bill stalled, and President Obama declared a woman’s right to choose “not [his] highest legislative priority.” Candidate Biden made a similar promise and, like Obama, never followed through.

Other Democratic leaders have also wavered in their commitment to choice. In 2016, Hillary Clinton chose an anti-choice Democratic Senator, Tim Kaine, as her running mate. Former DNC Chair Tom Perez, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have all backed anti-choice candidates and sought to downplay the issue in the party’s overall messaging.

Among Democrats, President Biden is especially bad on abortion. He’s on record as opposing a woman’s right to choose as far back as 1974, saying, rather incredibly, “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” Biden even played a key role in getting Clarence Thomas, one of the conservatives who overturned Roe, appointed to the Supreme Court. Throughout his career, Biden backed multiple abortion bans in the Senate. Even today, he’s planning to appoint an anti-choice judge to Kentucky’s Supreme Court.

In short, abortion rights have never been secure, even with Democrats controlling two-thirds of the federal government. And the Democratic response following the overturn of Roe has been bleak. When the Supreme Court’s decision first leaked, prompting protests at the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, rather than preserve abortion protections, Democrats moved overwhelmingly to pass a bill granting additional security to Supreme Court justices and their families. The most action they’ve taken so far has been sending out fundraising emails.

Some, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have aggressively used their platforms to push for solutions. Proposed solutions include impeaching Supreme Court justices who lied under oath about protecting Roe, opening abortion clinics on federal land in red states, and ending the filibuster to pass abortion protections through Congress. In a surprise reversal, Biden recently voiced support for ending the filibuster to codify Roe, but no formal action has been taken and he’s been dismissive of other strategies.

Unmasking the system

Pro-choice protests have popped up all over the country. Many of these have been met with a violent police presence. On Twitter, users share new videos daily of police arguing with, shoving, arresting, and assaulting protesters. Capitol Police arrested 181 protesters in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. In one of the more high-profile incidents, LAPD officers shoved sitcom actress Jodie Sweetin to the ground.

At a rally in Texas, protesters chanted, “Voting blue is not enough, Democrats we call your bluff.” Their rage is justified. The decision was an abysmal rollback of a fundamental right. By taking America so far backwards, the Supreme Court highlights how illegitimate our system is.

Some legal experts praise the overturn of Roe, arguing that abortion law belongs in the hands of individual states. Perhaps in some constitutional readings, this is so. But the practical effect of repealing Roe is that the federal government has blessed states to impose punitive and regressive abortion laws. These laws will inevitably lead to suffering, unsafe medical procedures, death, and parentless children. If it’s constitutional for the state to come between a woman and her physician to outlaw certain kinds of medical care, then we have very big problems.

Why abortion protection is so critical

With the fall of Roe, any national protection of a woman’s right to choose is gone. Some of the most restrictive abortion laws in states like Mississippi, Ohio, and Arkansas can now go unchallenged. In Texas and Idaho, the repeal of Roe triggered laws banning almost all abortions. The overturn has emboldened governors and legislators in red states like Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis – widely seen as a 2024 Republican presidential candidate – vowed to defend the state’s most restrictive abortion laws to date.

This is all under the pretext of protecting the unborn. Unfortunately, the abortion debate has been hijacked by hysterical fundamentalists who view all abortion as the equivalent of murder. This has led to extreme measures from the pro-life movement, up to and including, ironically, murdering doctors and calling for women who have abortions to be hanged.

The question of when life begins is more spiritual or philosophical than legal or scientific. The sperm that fertilizes the egg is made of living cells, as is the egg itself. When the two join, they can potentially undergo a process that may or may not lead to a human baby birth, but arguing that a zygote is a human being with full rights is problematic even for pro-lifers. Prominent pro-life activist Matt Walsh, for instance, recently embarrassed himself on Twitter by declaring an elephant fetus was a person.

For these reasons, it is hysterical, dangerous, and fundamentally false to refer to abortion as murder. Abortion is a medical procedure for terminating a pregnancy. Access to safe abortions is critically important – for would-be mothers who suffer life-threatening medical complications, for victims who don’t want to be forced to birth their attacker’s baby, and, yes, for anyone who made a mistake and doesn’t want to bring a new life into the world.

Even outside of extreme cases such as rape, incest, or life-threatening medical emergencies, abortion is a crucial part of smart family planning. And even if eliminating abortions was a worthy cause – which it isn’t – outlawing abortions isn’t going to eliminate them. Much like the War on Drugs, a War on Abortion will just drive abortions underground, exposing women to dangerous, unsanctioned medical procedures.

Only a grim Dark Age society would force all women to carry every pregnancy to term, particularly while making such pitiful investments in education, healthcare, childcare, nutrition, and foster care. If a woman gets pregnant – even if it’s against her will and she has no support – conservatives want her to live with that burden forever, with no assistance.

What can we do now?

No one should tolerate living under oppressive, abusive systems. When a law is unjust, people must disobey it. Already, a sort of abortion underground railroad has emerged. Activists have shared resources, offered to pay for transportation to abortion-safe states, and shown ways to safely communicate in states that outlaw abortion.

Democrats have options, including making a filibuster exemption to codify Roe into law. Sadly, the party’s dearth of leadership makes it seem unlikely they will use all the options at their disposal. Therefore, it falls on activists to pressure elected officials and put forward progressive challengers to moderate candidates.

The Supreme Court’s decision calls into question the legitimacy of the US government itself. Recent polling shows 61 percent of Americans support abortion rights. For six justices to have the power to override that will shows how off-the-rails things have gone.

But in this, too, there could be a silver lining. By allowing the American people this rotten glimpse under the government’s mask, the Supreme Court may have initiated a sea change. It’s far too early to tell what the consequences will be, but if the only way to fix the problem is a political revolution that completely restructures the government, overturning Roe may be what lights the kindling.

War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Clusterf*ck

After months of tension and speculation, on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded his neighbor Ukraine. Putin’s troops started in the Russia-friendly separatist region of the country known as the Donbas and have since made their way toward the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, which remains under siege.

The invasion has put the world on high alert. Western nations have imposed sanctions on Russia, markets have spiraled, and politicians have begun openly wondering whether the end result of all this will be a nuclear World War III.

No one can predict the future, but to make even an educated guess requires an understanding of Ukrainian/Russian history and US/NATO influence in the region.

A brief history of Ukraine

The modern history of Ukraine and the origin of the current political situation really begins in 1991, when Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR. This move was widely seen as the death blow for the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s separation involved difficult negotiations over Russian nuclear weapons in Ukraine and political control of Crimea, the quasi-independent peninsula populated mostly by ethnic Russians.

Since then, Ukraine has been consistently beset with political and economic turbulence, including corrupt leaders and regional skirmishes. Representatives from more than 70 political parties have won seats in Ukraine’s parliament since 1990. Far-right forces carry a lot of influence in the country, including the ultranationalist political party Svoboda and Avoz, a neo-Nazi battalion within Ukraine’s National Guard. Neo-Nazi groups often “operate with impunity” in Ukraine, terrorizing populations like the LGBT community.

After achieving independence, Ukraine tried to move away from its Russian alliances in the east and integrate more into Western Europe. In 1997, Ukraine signed a Charter on a Distinctive Partnership with NATO. While never becoming a full member, Ukraine has continued to strengthen its ties to NATO, with some Ukrainian leaders making full membership a key strategic goal. Current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants Ukraine to join both NATO and the European Union.

Ukraine’s growing ties to Western Europe, NATO, and the United States have been a particularly sore spot for Putin. Despite promises that it would not expand “one inch eastward,” NATO has continually moved closer to Russia, eventually absorbing states like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Some NATO member states house US nuclear weapons. Putin is wary of this military structure moving toward his borders and warned that Ukraine is a red line.

In 2014, Ukraine’s Maidan uprising culminated in the overthrow of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Maidan was depicted in US media as a grassroots revolution against a corrupt government. In reality, Western powers including the Obama Administration supported – and, to some extent, facilitated – Ukrainian neo-Nazis like Svoboda in the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government.

Shortly after the Maidan uprising, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. The eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, which borders Russia and is home to large numbers of pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, has been engulfed in off-and-on war ever since. The 2014 Minsk Agreement was supposed to grant Donbas some independence. Instead, the far-right Ukrainian military has continued carrying out human rights abuses in Donbas, torturing, detaining, and terrorizing ethnic minorities and LGBT people.

Putin’s most recent invasion began with his recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent territories. He moved troops into the Donbas region on February 21, 2022, and pushed into Ukraine on February 24.

Putin’s invasion

In a speech on February 24, Putin laid out his reasons for going to war. Chief among these were the expansion of NATO’s military apparatus, potentially including nuclear weapons, toward Russian borders; US domination of global affairs and disregard of international law in the post-Cold War world, including bombings in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere; and mistreatment of the people of Donbas by neo-Nazis in Ukraine.

Regardless of the legitimacy of some – if not all – of Putin’s claims, the United Nations and the international community have roundly condemned his invasion of Ukraine. It may well be a war crime.

Russian air, land, and sea units attacked Ukraine through the Donbas region in the east, from the Black Sea in the south, and through Belarus in the north. They have already seized certain areas, including the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the important port city of Kherson. Russian forces continue to shell Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and a large convoy of Russians has been stationed near Kyiv, with apparent plans to capture Ukraine’s capital.

Ukraine has accused Russia of war crimes for bombing civilian targets, including Kyiv’s biggest TV station and an opera house in Kharkiv. Russia has also been accused of using vacuum bombs, a particularly deadly weapon prohibited under international law.

News has been filled with images of Ukrainians, desperate to flee to safety, waiting for transportation and trekking long miles to neighboring countries like Poland. The UN estimates the war has already created 1 million refugees. Other Ukrainians have taken up arms and hunkered down to defend their country as Russian shells lay waste to their homes. Hundreds – if not thousands – of civilians have been killed already.

Numerous Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia and cut them off from various international banking and finance systems. President Biden authorized $350 million in arms support to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles, and the European Union pledged another €500 million. Biden also sent 7,000 US troops to Germany, apparently in case NATO needs them for any extra defense operations.

There is a real possibility that the war in Ukraine leads to a larger conflict – including, perhaps, direct military engagement between Russia and the United States. That could mean a nuclear World War III.

Propaganda in overdrive

Reports during war need to be taken skeptically. Accurate reporting from a chaotic warzone is challenging enough, but it’s made even worse when the parties involved manipulate press into propaganda for their own side.

In Western media, the Ukrainian conflict is boiled down to a clash of good vs. evil; freedom vs. tyranny. That view is cartoonishly simplistic, but it has already led to jingoism and anti-Russian bigotry.

FOX News’s Sean Hannity called for the assassination of Putin and suggested that NATO forces attack Russian troops in such a way that Putin doesn’t know who hit him. Hannity is laughably out of his depth pretending to be a military strategist. Apart from being illegal, such actions would likely escalate the conflict into a full-blown global war – the number one thing we should be trying to avoid.

Hannity went on to say, “If you invade an innocent sovereign country, and you kill innocent men, women, and children, you don’t deserve to live.” It’s an interesting perspective coming from a man who supported the US invasion of Iraq – an invasion that destroyed the country and killed hundreds of thousands. One of the architects of that war, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, characterized Putin’s invasion as being “against every principle of international law and international order.”

Other commentators have been explicitly racist in explaining why Putin’s war is worse than US invasions. Charlie D’Agata of CBS News said Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan… This is a relatively civilized, relatively European… city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, said, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” Western nations have also been far more welcoming of Ukrainian refugees than Middle Eastern ones.

There has also been backlash against ordinary Russian people. Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, proposed expelling all Russian students from the country. Russian businesses and brands have changed their names or been boycotted, in moves that recall the infamous campaign to change “French fries” to “Freedom fries” during the Invasion of Iraq.

Not all of the propaganda has been quite so sinister, but much of it is still very silly. Photos of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in fatigues and on the streets of Kyiv recently turned him into an internet sex symbol. Prior to becoming president, Zelenskyy played a fictional president on Ukrainian TV. He knows how to stage a photo op, and the enthusiastic responses to the photo illustrate just how powerful misinformation can be, particularly in times of war.

What can we do?

Understanding how we got here may help illuminate a way out. We must understand how Western provocations brought us to this point without using them to give Putin excuses. As the most powerful country in the world, the US sets the tone for global events. The best way we can reduce violence, suffering, and war across the globe is to stop participating and funding it.

Many of Putin’s concerns are legitimate. It’s long been known that NATO’s expansion could provoke a response like this from Russia. Even foreign policy hawks like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger encouraged NATO to exercise restraint. Formally abandoning NATO membership for Ukraine could go a long way toward appeasing Putin. More broadly than that, though, the West must abandon our aggressive takeover of the global economy and our expansion of military alliances toward the border of rival nuclear superpowers.

There are few encouraging signs. Putin and Zelenskyy have had peace talks, but they haven’t gotten far. They have, however, negotiated safe passageways for aid workers and civilians. So far, NATO and the US have been reluctant to engage Russian forces directly or establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and that relative restraint will hopefully continue.

The invasion has made Putin a pariah on the world stage, ostracized his country from global events, and led to domestic unrest. That kind of resistance could make the war untenable. We should be uniting with the Russian people, many of whom have protested the war at great personal risk, not villainizing them for the actions of Putin. We should join them on the streets of our own cities, demanding Western leaders compromise and find peaceful solutions to the conflict.

This is an unbelievably tense, dangerous moment, with a real potential for things to go catastrophically wrong. We want to root for “our side,” but we have to accept that walking the path of peace requires us to make concessions. We can’t trust the media, because it is too often used as a propaganda weapon to goad us into war. We must find ways to punish politicians who call for radical escalations like assassinations or nuclear strikes.

Most importantly, we must prevent nuclear war. In his speech, Putin reiterated the strength of his nuclear capacities and warned against any direct, physical attack. Meanwhile, US defense and intelligence agencies have gradually begun warming to the idea of using nuclear weapons. If the West pursues peace and abandons the goal of global economic domination, there may be hope of resolving this before it breaks out into a world war. Granting Putin one little concession is far more desirable than burning the world in a nuclear fire for the sake of Western finance.

Washington wants you to warm up to the idea of a nuclear war with Russia. Don’t.

As tensions on the border of Russia and Ukraine escalate, the United States is getting more deeply involved. Over the last two weeks, US cargo planes have delivered nearly 600 tons of military equipment to Ukraine. Last week, President Biden announced the deployment of 3,000 US troops to eastern Europe. The United States is pushing toward a nuclear World War III, and American citizens must raise their voices to stop it.

The problem need not concern us at all. Ukraine sits on the southwest border of Russia and was part of the Soviet Union until declaring independence in 1991. In the decades since, Ukraine’s turbulent politics have been influenced by far-right and neo-Nazi factions. In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, a peninsula in the south of Ukraine, and in 2021, he began a military buildup on the Ukrainian border.

American media frequently accuses Putin of wanting to expand the Russian empire. It’s a rich criticism coming from us. Our real fear is not that Putin may extend his empire — it’s that he may encroach on ours.

Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, recently offered some insight into how Washington views the world when she described Ukraine as one of “our eastern flank countries.” As a NATO ally, Ukraine is afforded protections. But NATO is, essentially, the US empire in disguise. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have repeatedly broken promises to Russia by expanding NATO closer to their border. Russia is understandably concerned that we have placed nuclear weapons within easy striking distance of them.

Russia has threatened to use nukes in response to NATO expansion. But we have moved towards their borders, not the other way around. Defending Ukraine isn’t about lofty principles like freedom or sovereignty. Washington is simply unwilling to suffer any dent in its international armor. If Ukraine is taken by force and falls under Russian rule again, it will be a tragedy. If World War III happens, it’ll be the end of human civilization.

It’s impossible to appreciate just how dangerous this moment is without fully understanding the power of nuclear weapons. In 1945, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, killing as many as 250,000 people and causing innumerable diseases and deformities. Today’s nukes are around 80 times more powerful than those bombs, and there are some 12,000 of them in the US and Russian arsenals. A single modern nuke detonated in Manhattan could kill nearly 2 million people and spread fallout for hundreds of miles. Dropped in the right places, 12,000 nukes could kill almost everyone in the US and Russia.

For 77 years, humanity has lived under the specter of extinction by nuclear war. So far, we have avoided it — but sometimes only narrowly. There’s been an uneasy presumption that nobody is suicidal enough to start a nuclear war, a philosophy appropriately known as MAD — mutually assured destruction. The theory holds that a nuclear attack will trigger a never-ending series of deadlier counterattacks until every nuke has been launched and both sides are completely destroyed.

Now, a growing number of voices in the US defense sector are challenging that long-held conventional wisdom. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists explains how the Pentagon’s internal messaging now insists that a nuclear war can be won. As the Biden Administration conducts its Nuclear Posture Review, most of Congress and the Pentagon is insistent that the US retain first-strike nuclear attacks as foreign policy options. Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pushed for a ground war with Russia in December and warned that, “We don’t rule out first-use nuclear action.”

American history shows we may be the world’s most dangerous nuclear power. We are the only country ever to use nuclear weapons in war. Since World War II, we have been in a constant state of war, perpetually conducting regime changes, military operations and invasions around the globe. Now, Washington is earnestly trying to sell war with Russia, even as Ukraine’s defense minister accuses the US of “spread[ing] panic and fear in our society.”

There is a theory that the Ukrainian tensions are a distraction to cover Putin’s and Biden’s respective domestic problems. It’s possible this will blow over. But even if it does, we cannot allow leaders to continually ratchet up tensions that put us at ever-greater risk of nuclear annihilation.

Only about 15 percent of Americans want American soldiers involved if Russia invades Ukraine. Washington can’t go to war without our permission — or, at least, our complacency. Every citizen must be prepared to unite in opposition to nuclear war. We should be prepared to cause widespread disruptions, stage strikes, shut down the economy, and clog the streets to demand a peaceful resolution. Further than that, we should demand that the US adopt a no-use policy on nuclear weapons and lead the world in nuclear disarmament.

The biggest nuclear threat doesn’t come from Russia — it comes from us. Given all that our leaders have said, it is naïve to assume that they have the wisdom to refrain from using nuclear weapons. Our collective power may be the only thing that can stop the greed of Washington and the recklessness of the defense industry from risking extinction over a territorial dispute on the other side of the planet. All the pain and suffering of the last 20 years — the War on Terror, the Great Recession, COVID-19 — will evaporate into quaintness if we allow nuclear war to begin.

“Don’t Look Up” review

Billionaire CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) and President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) concoct a ludicrous plot to cash in on a comet that’s about to destroy the earth.

Adam McKay and David Sirota’s Don’t Look Up, about a planet-killing comet on a rapid crash course with Earth and an America that is too distracted to do anything about it, is an allegory for our inaction on climate change. As a satire of government corruption, billionaire egomania, and celebrity culture, it is effective. And while the message is critical, the focus on parody sometimes comes at the expense of fleshing out the characters.

When the film starts, the Mt. Everest-sized comet — discovered by Ph.D. student Kate Dibiaski (Jennifer Lawrence) — is about six months away from colliding with Earth. Dibiaski and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), declare the comet a planet killer and set out on an urgent campaign to convince the US government to take action. Instead, the image-obsessed President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) downplays the comet and the media drops the story when their viewers don’t engage with it.

Both the writers and the characters in the movie passionately want to change people’s minds, and in a case of life imitating art, both have struggled to get through. Reviews in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and Variety have accused the film of smugly complaining about how dumb everyone else is. It does, occasionally, feel like the targets are low-hanging fruit: empty-headed Zoomers on their cell phones and rubes in red hats at political rallies. Don’t Look Up could have spent a little more time trying to understand why people fall for charlatans like President Orlean.

On the other hand, how delicately must we treat climate change deniers? We are living the reality of climate change now, with 80-degree winters, statewide fires, flooding in our subways, record-breaking heatwaves and hurricanes, deep freezes across Texas, and five-state tornadoes. Like the movie characters who adopt “Don’t look up” as a political slogan — by this point in the film, the comet is visible to the naked eye — millions of Americans look the other way while big business and politicians get rich off our planet’s destruction.

Don’t Look Up isn’t at its best when going after those easy targets, though. Its best satire is of the powerful, including President Orlean, her moronic Chief of Staff son Jason (Jonah Hill), vacuous talk show host Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), and tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance). Far from being elitist, the movie is, in fact, brimming with such contempt for elites that it’s a wonder it got funded. It is unforgiving, painting these people — and their real-world counterparts in media and politics — as irredeemable.

Isherwell is perhaps the best-realized of them all. The world’s third-richest man and a megadonor of President Orlean, he strides in and out of the Oval Office and the Situation Room with full security clearance, calls the president by her first name, and singlehandedly aborts a military mission to destroy the comet when he learns he can mine it for minerals to use in his electronic devices. His delusional messiah complex mirrors Elon Musk while his creepy data harvesting satirizes Mark Zuckerberg, and he’s not far off from the real thing in either case.

The movie only really shows America’s response to the planet-wide disaster. Perhaps this was intentional, to highlight America’s general lack of cooperativeness on global issues, but the absence of other scientifically advanced nations, which don’t suffer from the same capitalist corruptions that we do, is sometimes glaring. Only one joint Russian-Chinese venture is briefly shown to have failed.

Smartly, the writers don’t talk about political parties. President Orlean is clearly a Trumpian figure, obsessed with her image, sexually promiscuous, and giving high-ranking positions to her dotard child. But it’s never clearly stated which party she, or any of the other characters, belong to. Co-writer Sirota was a senior advisor to Bernie Sanders and has covered both Democratic and Republican corruption as a journalist, and the indictment this movie makes is of our entire system, not one party or another.

Unfortunately, the human lives the movie traces are not given as much attention as the commentary. Don’t Look Up is more about systems than characters. The characters are largely stand-ins for a point of view. When Dr. Mindy gets caught up in his fame and cheats on his wife with the more glamorous Brie Evantee, it’s hard to care, because his family life has been given so little screen time. The relationship between Jason and Janie Orlean is funny, but only really exists as a satire of elite nepotism.

Kate Dibiasky is the most relatable and best-developed character. Her fear of dying and desperate pleas to the population get her labeled insane, but they are the only truly sane reactions. Her relationship with the Christian punk Yule (Timothée Chalamet) is likewise the sweetest and most fleshed-out in the movie, and he becomes an important emotional core for the third act. We also meet Dibiaski’s comet-denying parents, but only briefly, and it’s a missed opportunity for something more substantial.

One of the movie’s problems, and a problem faced by all satirists, is that the real world is almost too crazy to exaggerate. For instance, the news show the scientists take their case to, The Daily Rip, isn’t so much a parody of shows like Morning Joe as it is a one-to-one recreation of them. Either because it’s too real or the jokes are too easy, there are only a few laugh-out-loud moments. But there’s nothing too eye-rolling, either. Like Dibiasky says, “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying.”

And in that context, Don’t Look Up is a much bigger success. It’s as matter-of-fact as can be about the reality that our lives and the future of our planet are in the hands of dumb, narcissistic, immoral, shortsighted, greedy people who would rather watch humanity go extinct than admit they were wrong or suffer any hit to their bank accounts or poll numbers. They are the most entertaining characters in the film, the worst people in the world, and the most realistically portrayed.

Ultimately, Don’t Look Up is effective because it’s real. We are living out the scenario right now, only instead of “Don’t look up,” it’s “Drill here, drill now.” A montage late in the movie shows what’s at stake: everything from bumblebees to human babies, from family dinners to entire cultures. It might be sentimental in parts, but we must mourn the loss, whether from a comet, climate change, COVID-19, or whatever other disaster our twisted system tries to capitalize on at the expense of human life.

Don’t Look Up doesn’t have to exaggerate. It’s a climate change allegory, but the movie is also about the fundamental dysfunction at the core of American society. It serves more as a document of our times than a call to action, but no other big-budget movie shows just how far off-course we’ve gone. We’re not a completely lost cause. But if we continue to be led by the President Orleans and Peter Isherwells of the world, they will never allow us a way out. That’s the real lesson of the movie: it’s all up to us, because they don’t care enough to even try.

Corruption and carnage: Why Biden is right to withdraw from Afghanistan

America’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan, is coming to an end. President Joe Biden announced that US troops would fully withdraw by August 31, almost 20 years after President George W. Bush invaded. After Biden’s announcement, the Taliban rapidly seized control of nearly every major institution and facility in the country. In the weeks since, the world has witnessed chaos unfold, particularly at the airport in Kabul as at-risk citizens, officials, and diplomats attempt to escape the incoming Taliban regime.

Democrats, Republicans, and corporate media have all criticized Biden for causing the crisis. Senator Mitch McConnell called the withdrawal, “An unmitigated disaster, a stain on the reputation of the United States of America… the defeat of the United States military by a terrorist organization in Afghanistan.” Former President Trump claimed that Biden, “Dropped to his knees and he said, ‘Come on in and take everything that we have.’” Biden’s approval rating has hit its lowest point yet.

To his credit, Biden has held to his convictions. Far from an act of surrender, Biden’s commitment to withdrawing the US from Afghanistan has demonstrated courage. He has defied every powerful political force in this country, from congressmen to corporate media to the military-industrial complex.

A graceful exit from Afghanistan was never realistic. The war was justified to begin with on the pretext that we had to find the terrorists responsible for bringing down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But those terrorists were not, as the Bush Administration often implied, one and the same with the Afghanistan government. When Bush declared his War on Terror, he essentially announced his intention to wage war against any nation if any terrorists might be there.

Since then, US foreign policy officials have muddled the war with a swirl of disinformation. Bush even turned down an offer, with certain conditions, from the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, ostensibly the whole point of the war. Officials convinced 70 percent of the American public that Iraq President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were linked, despite no such link existing. Justifications for the war mutated, new lies came and went from the headlines, and eventually, the war became background noise in America.

The human and material costs, however, were catastrophic. The war has now spanned multiple generations. At a cost of more than $2.4 trillion, some 2,400 US servicemen have died, along with more than 230,000 Afghans, including at least 70,000 civilians. Our bombs shattered their country and despite our supposed reconstruction efforts, 70 percent of Afghans currently have no clean water, 65 percent have no electricity, and 47 percent live below the poverty line. Opium production, however, has skyrocketed, in tandem with America’s opiate crisis.

Now, our best justification for the war has shifted to women’s rights. Women in Afghanistan do face significant repression from the incoming Taliban regime. But similar repression has never prompted us to declare war on ally states like Saudi Arabia. Biden is right when he says, “The idea that we’re able to deal with the rights of women around the world by military force is not rational… The way to deal with that is putting economic, diplomatic, and… international pressure on them to change their behavior.”

The only real justification is in the pocketbooks of US defense contractors. Since 2001, the stock value of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and General Dynamics have soared an average of 872 percent. Profits and earnings have soared, too. In 2001, the Pentagon budgeted $140 billion for military contractors. By 2019, that had increased to $370 billion. And the officially reported figures are almost certainly not accurate. The Pentagon reportedly mismanaged, shuffled, or lost some $35 trillion — with a ‘t’ — in 2019 alone.

So enormous is the scale of criminality and corruption that it’s difficult to fully grasp. Corporate media coverage of US foreign policy ranges from incomplete to purposely misleading. The experts who appear on network news are almost always current or former military officials, members of military think tanks, or representatives of defense contractors. If there is such a thing as the “deep state,” it is the network of intelligence and news agencies who keep the United States locked in perpetual war.

Mainstream coverage of the withdrawal has been almost universally negative. Polls are designed to skew public opinion against withdrawal. NBC warned that Afghanistan’s economy would collapse, as if it wasn’t already in ruins. CNN lamented the loss of “$1 trillion worth of minerals” when the Taliban takes over, as if it’s ours by right. One journalist at a press conference asked about the danger to our national security interests if we abandon the border of Tajikistan.

The presuppositions in all of this are that the US is righteous and noble and everything our military does makes the world a better place. The reality is far different. McConnell called the Taliban a terrorist organization, but the US military helped create them by arming, training, and funding extremists against the Soviets. Trump accused Biden of surrendering “everything that we have” in Afghanistan without asking why we have anything in Afghanistan, 7,000 miles away and across an ocean, in the first place.

The Taliban have one huge advantage over the US military in Afghanistan: they live there. Afghans are the only ones with any right to determine their own political future. If we hadn’t destroyed so much, perhaps a resistance to the Taliban could have formed. We can find ways to support that kind of growth without occupying the country. In 20 years, we’ve lost trillions of dollars, destroyed infrastructure, and ended hundreds of thousands of lives. Our presence hasn’t helped. We’ve done enough damage. Withdrawal isn’t defeat. It’s stopping ourselves from digging deeper.

Much about the US pullout from Afghanistan was rocky. People got hurt and killed, but that happened all war long. In the meantime, we have successfully evacuated more than 82,000 people. Those complaining about withdrawal the loudest are those who would have us remain in Afghanistan forever, who want the US military to cover the globe and fret about abandoning the border of Tajikistan. Of course they are going to portray the pullout as a disaster and goad Biden into staying. They love war.

Scenes of violence in Kabul are heartbreaking, but they are not the fault of Joe Biden. They are the inevitable consequence of Bush’s initial decision to invade in 2001 and the next two administrations deciding to stay. Strife and chaos are all that can result when a land is engulfed in war for decades. Our withdrawal is a step in the right direction for us and for Afghanistan, leaving the nation in their hands whether they ultimately form a government we like or not.

Why we should think beyond “returning to normal”

The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly everyone on the globe, bringing with it a great deal of suffering and significant changes in the way people work and live. Despite the initially dismal US response to the pandemic, we are now among the most vaccinated countries on earth. All across the country, restrictions are relaxing, masks are coming off, travel is resuming, and people have begun returning to normal.

Unfortunately, “normal” in the US is a dire situation to begin with.

As bad as COVID was, it also brought with it several silver linings. The scope and horror of the situation forced us, for the briefest moment, to prioritize something other than profit. The rich weren’t immune to COVID-19. A far-right Republican government temporarily instituted an eviction moratorium and student debt relief, issued stimulus checks, and expanded unemployment benefits. Some essential employees received pay increases. Those who were able worked remotely, reconnecting with their families, clearing up the roads, and allowing nature some respite from our constant hustle.

For a while, it seemed like some of these changes might become permanent. Pundits and politicians seriously discussed universal basic income and student debt forgiveness. As we realized society is only as healthy as the least-healthy among us, the need for a Medicare-for-All system became apparent. Businesses explored more flexible work models, and some made work-from-home permanent.

Now, there is no “new normal.” Instead, we are rushing back to the old normal as quickly as possible.

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How progressives should navigate their Biden conundrum

If current polling is accurate, former Vice President Joe Biden could cruise to a crushing victory over President Donald Trump on Election Day, November 3. Much can change between now and then. As the world learned in 2016, nothing is certain. But barring a significant reversal of Trump’s fortunes or interference with the electoral process, America will likely inaugurate a new president in 2021.

For many of the country’s liberals, that’s the endgame. Especially after the numerous catastrophes and close calls of 2020, they want to relax, be rid of Trump, and breathe a sigh of relief. But as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez warned, “There’s no going back to brunch. We have a whole new world to build. We cannot accept going back to the way things were, & that includes the Dem party. We must deliver transformative, material change.”

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In memory of Michael Brooks, the left’s best commentator

Michael Brooks

Brooks, known for his humor and insight, passed last week, age 36.

Humanity lost a tremendous ally last week when Michael Brooks, a cohost of The Majority Report with Sam Seder and host of his own The Michael Brooks Show, passed away at the age of 36. Michael was an informed, insightful, witty, and moral voice for a better world. Outpourings of sadness and support came from thousands of activists, journalists, and political figures, including Chris Hayes, Dr. Cornel West, and even former Brazilian President Lula da Silva.

Brooks transcended the world of internet commentary. With Seder, he broke news stories down to their most essential components with rigorous philosophical and moral investigation. He brought a uniquely internationalist perspective to mainstream leftist YouTube, frequently referencing social movements in Latin America in particular. He articulated himself carefully, almost pedantically, but always with an immense amount of warmth, charm, and compassion. Continue reading

A way of understanding America’s civil unrest

mpd burning

People run in front of the Minneapolis Police Department, 3rd Precinct, as it burns in the background.

Cities across the country have erupted in protest following a spate of police killings of unarmed black people – most prominently George Floyd, but also Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, and others. Police have attacked crowds with teargas, rubber bullets, batons, and vehicles. Rioters have burned buildings and looted stores. People have been seriously injured and several have been killed.

Amid the chaos, President Trump has quadrupled down on his most authoritarian instincts. He’s frequently screamed “LAW & ORDER!” in all-caps tweets. Trump urged the nation’s governors to “get much tougher,” “dominate,” and jail protesters for “five years or ten years” so that “you’ll never see this stuff again.” He deployed the military in Washington, D.C., and threatened to use the 101st Airborne against American citizens in American streets.

The history of black oppression in America is too long for any one article, but it’s critical to understand it in order to grasp the facts of the current unrest. Racism is thoroughly baked into the history, culture, and consciousness of America. Many police forces began as slave patrols hunting down escaped slaves and then as segregation enforcers. Civil rights legislation in the 1960s formally outlawed discrimination, but did little to address the legacy of centuries of abuse, poverty, and bigotry. To this day, fully 400 years after the first slave came to America, blacks face well-documented discrimination in housing, education, business, banking, media, and of course, the justice system. Continue reading