Archive | June 1st, 2020

How Obama Could Find Some Redemption


Photograph Source: jamesomalley – CC BY 2.0

History, literature, film, and scripture are loaded with stories and examples of redemption. Buddhism gives us the story of Aṅgulimāla, a pathological mass-murderer who became a follower of the Buddha and went on to be enshrined as a “patron saint” of childbirth in South and Southeast Asia.

Rick Blaine, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca, put side his cynical bitterness and seeming indifference to the rise of the Nazi Third Reich to help Isla Lund (played by Ingmar Bergman) – the former lover who jilted (and embittered) him – escape the grip of the Nazis with her husband, an anti-fascist Resistance fighter. The movie ends with Blaine declaring his determination to join the Resistance in Morocco.

The New Testament tells the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector and a wealthy man:

“Jesus looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to Jesus, ‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.’ And Jesus said to Zacchaeus, ‘Today salvation has come to this house. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.’”

Zacchaues was perhaps inspiration for Charles Dickens’ character Ebeneezer Scrooge, a vicious exploitative capitalist turned into a benevolent and kindly employer when the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future visit him to tell him the story of his heretofore miserable, money-grubbing, and misanthropic life.

Malcom X told his life story to Alex Haley as one of redemption. It was a tale of progression from violent and criminal hustler (known as “Detroit Red”) to the righteous and radical channeling and focusing his anger at White Society as a fiercely eloquent Civil Rights fighter for all the oppressed.

When the leading munitions and arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel read a premature obituary that condemned his as “the merchant of death,” he bequeathed his fortune to establish the annual Nobel Peace Prize.

After a long career of leading bloody, racist, and imperialist interventions in the Philippines, China, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, the United States Marines Major General J. Smedly Butler was at the time of his death, 1940, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. Upon retirement in the early 1930s, however, Butler became widely known for his outspoken lectures against war profiteering, U.S. military adventurism, and what he viewed as nascent fascism in the United States. In 1933, he exposed the “Business Plot,” telling a Congressional committee that a group of wealthy American industrialists were planning a military coup to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt, with Butler selected to lead a march of veterans to become a fascist-style dictator. Two years later, Butler published War is a Racket, which has been widely quoted by antiwar activists ever since. America’s left and anti-imperialist intellectual Noam Chomsky has long kept on his wall a framed picture of the following statement from Butler’s book:

“WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives…I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

The United States’ greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, found a measure of redemption on the slavery issue during the Civil War. Like many moderate Republicans in the late 1850s and 1860-61, Lincoln was – much to the chagrin of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass – “unwilling to jeopardize the Union by interfering directly with slavery in the states” (Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War [New York: Oxford University Press, 1970], p. 215.) He undertook the Civil War with the sole stated aim of restoring the treasonously seceded slave states of the southern Confederacy to the Union. Faced with early Confederate victories and the need to cripple the South’s slave-based economy to defeat it, however, Lincoln bowed to pressure of the abolitionists and let his longstanding moral opposition to slavery find voice in the Emancipation Proclamation. From that point on, the epic conflict was a struggle over the slave system. In his justly famous Gettysburg Address of November 1863, Lincoln called the Civil War a struggle to see whether a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…can long endure.” He identified the Union Army’s cause as “a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In his less well remembered but equally eloquent Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 18654, Lincoln left no doubt about where he stood on the need to abolish chattel slavery:

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Another American president who deserves at least some redemption credit because of a speech he gave near the end of his time in office is Dwight Eisenhower. A lifelong militarist whose presidency undertook numerous murderous, destructive, and imperial actions around the world, Eisenhower concluded his two terms in the White House by warning against the rise of an authoritarian “military-industrial complex” in his January 17 1960 Farewell Address:

“Th[e] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist…We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

(Eisenhower hardly invented the notion of the “military-industrial complex.” The notion suggests a deadly anti-democratic nexus of political, economic, and military power that lay at the heart of the left U.S. sociologist C Wright Mills’ haunting 1956 study The Power Elite. Still, it was a remarkable and prescient warning for Eisenhower to issue in his final public statement from the peak office atop the world’s leading military superpower. The warning has gone un-heeded ever since.)

There is always hope for a change of legacy and a measure redemption. We do not live in the past. As the Buddhists say, the present moment is the only moment that exists. There is always a chance to change one’s path, building on the lessons of one’s mistakes and even one’s crimes to chart a new direction – to seek a measure of redemption, “salvation,” and recovery.

What would redemption look like for Barack Obama? It would involve eight things, for starters. First, it would entail admitting something unpleasant: his own deep complicity in the deadly ascendancy of the neofascist Donald Trump, who Noam Chomsky aptly calls “the most dangerous criminal in human history.” To no small extent, Trump owes his disastrous and malevolent presidency to the silver-tongued Obama’s eight years of White House service to the rich and powerful. The corporate-Democratic Obama presidency betrayed the working people, poor, and minorities in whose name Obama campaigned under the banners (inherited from the master corporate Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign) of Hope and Change. Obama’s eight years in the White House demobilized and depressed the nation’s progressive majority while antagonizing the nation’s racist right-wing in ways that produced dangerous political openings for an ever more apocalyptic and authoritarian, white-nationalist Republican Party – a party that united behind an at least instinctual fascist (Trump)who was under the influence of actual and conscious fascists Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller in the summer of 2016. I published a long Counterpunch essay on precisely how Obama contributed to the rise of Trump. It was titled “Barack Von Obamdenbug: Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens.” The title says it all but please read the whole thing for the details.

“Please stop wearing those t-shirts that say, ‘Do You Miss Me Yet?” Obama would tell liberals. “Yes, Trump is terrible, he’s a monster, but guess what: I’m a big part of why he’s in power.”

Second, redemption would require Obama apologizing to the nation for following Trump’s election by going out into the Rose Garden the next day and telling the American people to give Trump a chance and “root…for his success in uniting and leading the country…because we’re actually all on one team. We’re Americans first, we’re patriots first, we all want what’s best for this country.”

That was idiotic, deeply conservative advice and Obama knew it. During the 2016 campaign, we learned from a recent Hulu documentary on Hillary Clinton, Obama said this to Hillary’s lame vice presidential pick Tim Kaine: ‘Tim, remember, this is no time to be a purist. You’ve got to keep a fascist out of the White House.”

It was an all-too accurate description of Trump. No responsible political actor tells the American people to “root for the success” of a demented arch-authoritarian racist, nativist, sexist, and eco-cidal demagogue – a fascist – in the world’s most powerful job.

Third, Obama would apologize for helping kick off RussiaGate, which turned out (predictably) to be a “great political gift to Trump” (Chomsky). As the Russian dissident Masha Gessen warned early on, Russiagate “will not bring down Trump.” Further:

“He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’ (emphasis added).

Other, far more urgent issues like the corporate war on livable ecology, which raises the real specter of human extinction, with Trump in the vanguard of the effort to turn the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber. Like the lack of elementary and responsible readiness for a global pandemic that public health experts had been warning the U.S. government about for many years – a public health crisis that Trump has predictably used to deepen his authoritarian rule.

Fourth, redemption would require the Obamas giving away the tens of millions of dollars they have received from the nation’s ruling class as deferred oligarchic payment for their obedient service to the wealthy Few while the rest of the country struggled to keep their heads above water in the wake of the Great Recession. That service helped put a fascist in the world’s most powerful job. The money could be given away to the victims of the current new Great Depression or to the formation of grassroots organizations equipped to fight white nationalism and plutocracy.

Fifth, Obama would suspend work on the environmentally toxic gentrification project that is his big presidential library on Chicago’s South Side. He could invest remaining project funds into a library dedicated to research on how the American corporate and financial ruling class rules, how that rule leads to disastrous consequences (including but not limited to fascism in its various forms, and what the working-class majority can and must do to meaningfully counter and overthrow ruling class power. As one of Obama’s distinguished biographers (or at least chroniclers), I, the author of They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Routledge, 2014), will be happy to deliver the Keynote Address at the unveiling of this library.

Sixth, Obama could go public on a regular basis with his all-too pathetically private understanding of the Trump presidency as neo-fascistic – and with an admission that this corporate-Democratic administration helped hatch that presidency. If that is too much to ask (it probably is), Obama could at least use his status as “more popular than Jesus” among Democrats to show some guts and challenge Trump’s policies and behavior in a direct and forceful way. It’s been disconcerting to (not) hear Obama’s deafening silence as the nation has drifted ever further into Trumpism-fascism, now under the cover of Trump-amplified COVID-19 – a creepy hush that has persisted even as Trump regularly attacks every one of Obama’s policies he can get his hands on and blames Obama for every imaginable evil at home and abroad.

Seventh, Obama would suspend work on his forthcoming 1000-page book – his third volume on his favorite topic: Obama. It is certainly going to be a self-serving whitewash of his two decades of “public” service in elected office to the possessing classes and their domestic and global Empire. Who needs that?

It would useful if he would turn the volume into a short and readable reflection on how and why he became a servant of the corporate and financial oligarchy and a deadly imperialist – and on how those life choices influenced world history in disastrous ways, including his contribution the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Obama could channel J. Smedly Butler, with a little Eisenhower thrown in (Obama once described himself to corporate CEOs as an Eisenhower Republican), reflecting on his years of service to Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.

Eighth, Obama would give a speech in which he rescinded his endorsement of the center-right corporatist Joe Biden. He would apologize for his central role in foisting the depressing Biden atrocity on America and the world. He would tell Americans that Bernie Sanders was the only major party candidate who ran in accord with the policy wishes and values of the nation’s silenced progressive majority. The onetime community organizer Obama would also tell Americans that voting under the deeply flawed and corporate-captive U.S. elections and party system is a very minor and marginal act compared to the kind of peoples’ politics they need to develop in order to fight the combined authoritarian forces of corporate and financial oligarchy, imperialism, militarism. white nationalism, racism, sexism, and ecocide. Obama’s address would include the following passage from the late radical American historian Howard Zinn’s brilliant March 2008 Progressive essay “Election Madness,” published as liberals, progressives and even some leftists were losing their minds over., well….um, Obama:

“Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war….Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

What are chances of Obama doing any of these things?

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Aiming Missiles at Viruses: a Plea for Sanity in a Time of Plague


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The point I am trying to make here is a simple and obvious one, or would be in a society not burdened with a two-pronged ideology of extreme militarism and extreme individualism. It is this: In feeding the military-industrial complex so richly at this time, we are starving ourselves of many vital things and weakening ourselves as a society, perhaps to the point of suicide. We are in effect sacrificing our future on the altar of American imperialism, which like some dark god of the past, is ever hungry and can be assuaged only by human life.

The coronavirus plague now sweeping the globe – sickening millions, killing hundreds of thousands, bringing normal life for the world’s masses to an unprecedented and indefinite halt – puts into sharper relief than ever before the distinction between what we refer to reflexively as “national security” and the safety and security of real human beings. The ability to grasp that distinction at this moment is the difference between sanity and insanity.

Right now, as at least 40 of the nation’s states still fail to test their populations at the benchmark rate set by the World Health Organization, the Pentagon continues to chew through its bloated $700 billion-plus budget, larger than the next 10 countries combined. At a time when states still scramble to locate and pay for basic protective equipment for doctors and nurses, when every level of government here in the so-called “richest country in the world” is trying to square the circle of escalating costs and radically diminished revenues, the great American war machine grinds on, fighting its forever wars and extending its intimidating presence into every continent. A quarter-million American troops and mercenaries are now deployed in at least 177 countries and territories, at last count. It’s easier to list the places not housing U.S. forces; those would be, by and large, the nations our military, intelligence and diplomatic services are attempting to subvert, sanction or otherwise bludgeon into proper submission to the geopolitical and economic agenda of the global leviathan.

What exactly are these soldiers doing in Australia, Norway, the Philippines, Mali, Bahrain, etc.? Who knows? Defense Department bureaucrats feel as much need to explain and justify the stationing of their legions as did the Roman emperors. It all falls under the convenient, no-questions-allowed rubric of “national defense.” The exorbitant spending on high-tech weapons against low-tech terrorists, or whomever this week’s existential threat is – this too is largely unaccountable. It is managed by the fourth and most efficient branch of government, the revolving-door lobbyists employed by weapons makers, whom I hope and pray are maintaining proper social distancing as they perform their essential work of channeling corporate largesse to the campaign funds of key congressional committee members.

What we do know is what our ubiquitous military is not fighting: the only enemy that matters at the moment, the novel coronavirus, the real red menace. No amount of gunboat diplomacy with oil-rich nations, or support for Saudi Arabia’s murderous and endless war in impoverished Yemen, will bring us one minute closer to a vaccine or useful treatment against COVID-19, the microscopic invader that within a couple of months since its arrival in the U.S. has produced as large a death toll as the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. No rattling of sabers against China or Russia, no chest-thumping assertions made to a bemused world of American greatness or exceptionalism will bring to heel a contagion that, thanks to the current administration’s total lack of preparedness and tardy and inept response, has overcome our feeble public health defenses and made America the world’s epicenter of illness and death. Nor, obviously, do the plans in place to “update” our already planet-destroying nuclear capability protect us one bit from the catastrophic destruction – physical, psychological, cultural and economic – already wrought by these invisible specks of protein and genetic material. No, the $5 trillion and change we have spent this century on devastating and pointless warfare has only moved us closer to bankruptcy, financial and moral, while undermining COVID-19 prevention, treatment and research efforts, as well as related social support.

The raw numbers of the pandemic – with the U.S., representing just over 4 percent of the world’s population, accounting for 32 percent of total cases, 41 percent of active cases and 29 percent of deaths as I write this – serve as an irrefutable index of bad decisions made, of skewed priorities and sheer failure. The wave of suffering and fear that has come upon us has produced altruism and insight among some, but it has also triggered much misplaced rage and denial on the part of the MAGA crowd. The aggression, confusion and willed stupidity we see on display these days among militant “reopeners” is to some extent a karmic rebound of our geopolitics, an increasingly fascistic domestic belligerence that echoes the arrogant, bullying, me-first-and-only face our nation has long presented to the larger world.

That old radical pacifist America-hater, Dwight D. Eisenhower, famously wrote that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” In the same letter, he also presciently noted, “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: … two fine, fully equipped hospitals.”

Which is just the sort of thing that could come in handy about now. Along, of course, with the ability to test the minimum of 900,000 people per day that Harvard researchers claim is necessary to reopen the economy with any margin of safety. That number is almost three times the country’s current daily testing rate, which is still limited, after all these weeks, by supply issues, including shortages of swabs. (Which in itself is symptomatic of an industrial plant so corrupted by military spending and Defense Department procurement practices that it can readily produce complex and deadly weapons, but not modified Q-Tips.) It’s hard to imagine such a crisis affecting the Pentagon, with its rich legacy of $500 hammers and $600 toilet seats. However, the swabs are intended not to take lives but to save them, a goal that many on the Right seem to find unseemly and unmanly. This includes the president and vice president, with their selfish, macho refusal to protect the health of others and send a positive message to the citizenry by wearing a mask.

I think I understand their reticence. Once you start treating human life – all human life – as just a tiny bit precious and maybe a hint sacred, where will it end? With a questioning, perhaps, of our current concept of national greatness, based as it is on the concrete reality of perpetual war. And maybe, too, of a healthcare non-system designed around private profit, which withholds its benefits from those who are most susceptible to disease and most likely to spread it to others. In his grandiose way, the president declares his commitment to quickly (i.e., before the November election) develop a vaccine against the killer virus, likening this effort to the Manhattan Project in its urgency and budgetary priority. But the Manhattan Project took place during a real war, and this is just the moral equivalent of war – which is to say, it is driven by compassion rather than hatred and xenophobia. And so whatever resources end up being pledged to this seemingly humanitarian medical initiative – which will undoubtedly be tainted by the capitalist imperatives of Big Pharma – they will still be dwarfed by the monies allocated to the direct descendant of the Manhattan Project, the Strangelovian nuclear war-fighting capability that for 75 years has kept us all in a man-made climate of demoralizing terror.

In his Riverside Church speech of 1967, Martin Luther King stated that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Perhaps we have passed that point already, maybe long ago, judging by the complacency with which our society accepts a bellicose status quo in a time when nothing is normal. American companies continue to supply the smart bombs that Saudi pilots dumbly – or perhaps quite intentionally – drop on Yemeni children. Vindictive, senseless sanctions continue to be levied against Iran, a nation hard hit by the epidemic, as well as Venezuela, an oil-exporting nation in “our backyard” that cannot be allowed to function as a sovereign state, lest the example spread. American boots remain planted in myriad places the American public cannot pronounce or find on a map. The Pentagon pledges to build hundreds or thousands of hypersonic missiles, their newest toy, triggering yet another dangerous, futile and ruinously expensive arms race. Trump sputters on about his Space Force, declaring that “We must have American dominance in space” – a far cry from “We came in peace for all mankind,” the words left, however sincerely, on the surface of the moon by the Apollo astronauts half a century ago. The Cold War and its ideological rivalry is a generation past now, and not even lip service is paid anymore to peace and humanity, ideas fit only for wimps and losers in the Darwinian struggle of all against all that is life in the MAGA Republic.

The inhuman language of domination, power and control emanates endlessly from the top these days, from the lips of a deranged and dangerous president and the leadership of the Republican Party, which has completed its metamorphosis into right-wing death cult. But the context has changed, and so, subtly and inevitably, has the language’s meaning. Blustering about our arsenal and striking power at a time when we have failed so spectacularly to protect ourselves from a primitive microbe signals weakness, not strength. It reveals a thought structure so ingrown and ossified that it can no longer recognize its own situation or adapt to changing circumstances.

When I see photos of the militia types milling around state capitols, unmasked and brandishing AR-15 rifles while denouncing the emergency measures designed to keep them and their families alive, I wonder: Do these people mean to shoot the virus dead, Rambo style? There’s something strangely poignant beneath the reopeners’ ugly, threatening posturing. Paunchy and paranoid, born victims, they swagger childishly and flaunt their phallic weapons because, like all of us, they are afraid. But unable to honestly acknowledge their own fear, they mask it with anger and suspicion and hostility aimed at straw-man enemies. Dimly aware of their own isolation, vulnerability and powerlessness in a culture of exaggerated self-reliance, torn social safety nets, toxic masculinity and Fox TV, they come together in illusory and transient communities cemented by shared anti-social attitudes and excess testosterone.

These sad-sack right-to-deathers are a disturbing reflection of larger forces. Only in America would we have the Blue Angels – shining symbol of the military behemoth that spreads so much death and destruction worldwide while consuming half or more of the federal government’s discretionary spending – salute the lifesaving labor of the frontline healthcare workers who have gotten so little tangible support from Washington. Spectacle we do well; it’s planning, cooperation, mutual aid and shared sacrifice for the common good we find more challenging. A shallow patriotism comes easily to Americans, but real solidarity does not.

This is a terrible moment we’re going through, but also one of unwonted clarity. We must choose – in our thinking, our behavior, our policy and budgetary decisions – between life and death, between saving actual lives and projecting brute, abstract force. If we continue to pretend that things haven’t shifted fundamentally, that out of a crippled and traumatized economy we can extract both new missiles and new medical treatments, then we have learned nothing from this experience and have not earned a livable post-virus future.

Making America Great Again proved an effective campaign slogan, a sadly popular invitation to collective self-delusion and the unleashing of pent-up hatreds. The question we can no longer avoid is whether we can make America good for once. If it’s still possible at this late date, it will begin with a reconsideration of the muddled and mystified concepts of national security and national defense, and a plan for moving as a society from a passive acceptance of the sickness that is war to an active pursuit of healing and of peace.

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US, Singapore Navies Conduct Joint Exercise in South China Sea

US, Singapore Navies Conduct Joint Exercise in South China Sea

SOUTH CHINA SEA: The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) and the Republic of Singapore Navy Formidable-class multi-role stealth frigate RSS Steadfast (FFS 70) conducted a bilateral exercise in the South China Sea, May 24-25.

The events were an opportunity for Gabrielle Giffords and Steadfast to practice and enhance bilateral interoperability between the two navies, with emphasis on the importance of communications and coordination while sailing together.

“Meeting our partners at sea gives our navies the opportunity to practice maritime proficiencies, and further strengthen the bond between both countries,” said Capt. Ann McCann, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 7. “Engaging with our network of partners in the region is essential to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The events included a publication exercise, flashing light exercise, maneuvering exercise, large and small caliber gun shoots, and a photo exercise. All events were planned with an emphasis on COVID-19 social distancing measures, resulting in a successful multi-event exercise, with no in-person planning.

“This was the first time that Gabrielle Giffords Blue Crew sailed alongside the Singapore Navy at sea, and they demonstrated high tactical proficiency throughout the exercise,” said Cmdr. Dustin Lonero, commanding officer of Gabrielle Giffords Blue Crew. “Working with Steadfast was an excellent learning opportunity and gave us the chance to strengthen bonds, and enhance our mutual maritime professionalism in the shared naval environment.”

Exercise Pacific Griffin, U.S.-Singapore’s most complex naval exercise to date, occurred near Guam in October 2019 and was the last time the two countries exercised at sea.

Commanding Officer of RSS Steadfast, Lieutenant Colonel Carlin Song highlighted the importance of conducting the exercise.

“This exercise at sea provides both navies the opportunity to continue to hone our professional competencies and interoperability,” Song said. “Due to COVID-19, we had to conduct the exercise planning virtually. We were able to do so and execute the evolutions smoothly because of the good understanding that we have built over the years.”

The U.S. and Republic of Singapore navies work together on a number of initiatives at sea such as ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX), Exercise Pacific Griffin, Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT), and Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), as well as combined operations such as multi-national counter-piracy.

Attached to Destroyer Squadron 7, Gabrielle Giffords is on a rotational deployment to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

U.S. 7th Fleet conducts forward-deployed naval operations in support of U.S. national interests in the Indo-Pacific area of operations. As the U.S. Navy’s largest numbered fleet, 7th Fleet interacts with 35 other maritime nations to build partnerships that foster maritime security, promote stability, and prevent conflict.

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Trump’s executive order against social media is rubbish. Ignore it.

Oh noes. Mean Twitter fact-checked two tweets by the Orange Toddler, who then had a tantrum. Trump huffed and puffed, then issued a meaningless unenforceable executive order trying to repeal Section 230. However, the presidency does not have the authority to do that. Drat that pesky Congress, Constitution, and Bill of Rights!

Predictably, trolls and bots are swarming on social media trying to defend this new derangement from Trump. Do not respond on Twitter to those with tiny numbers of followers and no identifying info. Also, ask yourself, why are they swarming and who is sending them?

Also, free speech rights do not apply on Twitter, or on any social media. The companies have the right to censor, silence, or expel anyone. And a court just ruled that Twitter and Facebook do not silence conservative views, something which should be obvious to anyone except, oh, far right nut cases like Laura Loomer.

three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Wednesday affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit that was filed by the conservative legal organization Freedom Watch and far-right activist Laura Loomer. Freedom Watch and Loomer alleged that the Silicon Valley giants were coordinating together to silence conservative viewpoints and that they were violating the First Amendment and antitrust policies.

“The district court dismissed the complaint, holding that Freedom Watch had standing to sue but failed to allege colorable legal claims,” the judges wrote in their decision. “On appeal, we reach the same conclusion.”

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Trump’s War on Arms Control and Disarmament


Photograph Source: ZhengZhou – CC BY-SA 3.0

A successor to the Trump administration will have to rebuild the credibility of the Department of Justice and the effectiveness of such regulatory agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Finance Protection Agency.  It will have to rebuild the intelligence community, which has been heavily politicized, and the Department of State, which has been hallowed out.  Now, you can add the field of arms control and disarmament to the list of reclamation projects because of the hostile and counterproductive acts of the Trump administration.

Every U.S. president since Dwight David Eisenhower has understood the importance of arms control and disarmament, which serves to highlight the ignorance and inexperience of Donald Trump and his key advisers regarding disarmament issues.  Over the past two years, the Trump administration has scuttled the Iran nuclear accord, which brought a measure of predictability to the volatile Middle East, and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which destroyed more missiles that any treaty in history.  Now, the Trump administration has walked away from the Open Skies Treaty, which was particularly important to the Baltic states and the East Europeans for monitoring Russian troop movements on their borders.

The treaty itself was first suggested by President Eisenhower in the 1950s as a way to improve the strategic dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union.  It was ultimately negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The Trump administration’s claim that the treaty permits surveys of civilian targets in the United States that pose “an unacceptable risk to our national security” is particularly ludicrous.  Information on U.S. infrastructure is publicly available to anyone from Google Earth as well as commercial imagery.

The U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty is particularly important as it constitutes another gratuitous setback to the transatlantic security dialogue and as a signal that the United States has no interest in any disarmament dialogue with Russia, including the need for extending the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START), the last remaining arms control agreement with Russia.  The New START limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear missiles each, but the Obama administration had to bow to Republicans to accept a $1.7 trillion nuclear modernization program in order to support the treaty.  And such neoconservatives as Senators Ted Cruz (R/TX) and Tom Cotton (R/AK) are supportive of the Trump administration’s commitment to long-term nuclear modernization that has no place for arms control measures.

For the past several years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to engage the United States in an arms control dialogue to include a pledge to no-first-use of nuclear weapons; no militarization of outer space; and the creation of nuclear-free zones.  The Trump administration has turned its back on all of the Russian initiatives, and the recent creation of a Space Force is one more deterrent to a conciliatory dialogue.  Such a dialogue was the central key to improving relations between Washington and Moscow during the worst days of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, opeds in the New York Times and the Washington Post have defended the Trump administration’s latest salvo against arms control and disarmament, and even suggested that withdrawal from the Open Skies agreement is a “hopeful” sign for Russian-American relations.  Writing in the Post on May 22, David Ignatius, who typically supports administration positions on defense policy, argues that Trump himself favors “more engagement” with Moscow and that the withdrawal from the international treaty is in fact a “tactical tilt toward Russia.”  Ignatius bases that view on the expectation that Trump really wants to draw the Chinese into the disarmament dialogue and, furthermore, that Russia shares that goal.  It is far more likely, in my estimation, that Beijing currently has no interest in being drawn into a three-way dialogue on arms control and that U.S. emphasis on including China in any new strategic arms treaty is in fact a “poison pill” to kill the current strategic arms agreement that expires this winter.

The Times oped, moreover, would have you believe that so-called Russian abuses of the Open Skies accord are actually undermining American security.  Tim Morrison, a Russian hard-liner who formerly served on Trump’s National Security Council, argues that Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its “invasion” of Syria justify scuttling an agreement that didn’t provide advance warning of such “military adventures.”  He fails to mention that satellites designed to provide such intelligence are not affected by the Open Skies Treaty.  Morrison fails to mention that the real value of the treaty was providing assurance to our European NATO allies regarding Russian troop movements on their borders.  (Morrison also should have mentioned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad invited the Soviet deployment, which hardly counts as an “invasion.”

President John F. Kennedy ignored the Pentagon’s opposition to the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and even President Ronald Reagan ignored the opposition of Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle to complete the INF Treaty in 1987.  There are no genuine arms control specialists in the Trump administration, which is staffed by loyalists and anti-Russian hardliners such as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the newly appointed arms negotiator Marshall Billingslea.  Once upon a time, the United States had an Arms Control and Disarmament Agency that served as a lobby for disarmament, but President Bill Clinton bowed to right-wing pressure in 1997 and killed the independence of the agency by folding it into the Department of State.  Thus, the rebuilding task for U.S. national security policy will be difficult and time-consuming.

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Interview with US official suggests American support for Turkish military intervention and Islamist terrorists in Libya

David Schenker
Nureddin Sabir, Editor, Redress Information & Analysis, writes:

Fresh evidence has emerged suggesting that the United States sees Turkey as a useful proxy to support the unelected Libyan “Government of National Accord” (GNA).

The GNA is by backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and myriad other Islamist terrorist groups, organised crime groups, notably people and oil smugglers, Qatar and Turkey, which has brought at least 10,100 Syrian mercenaries and jihadists into Libya and participated directly in attacks on the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Since April 2019 the LNA has been fighting to liberate the Libyan capital Tripoli and the 15 per cent of the country still under GNA control. It had been supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, but there is doubt over whether these two countries, both obedient US client-states, still back it. There have also been reports of limited Russian support for the LNA.

In an interview with France 24 on 28 May David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, warned that the Libyan conflict “could spin out of control if the Russians choose to escalate further”. However, he failed to mention that such escalation could only be in response to Turkey’s massive intervention on behalf of the GNA which, in addition to supplies of mercenaries and weapons, has seen Turks participate directly in fighting, most recently in the assault and capture of the strategic Al-Watiya air base, west of Tripoli.

A former Pentagon official, Schenker previously served as the director of the Beth and David Geduld Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think-tank in the US capital.

In his interview, Schenker, who appeared a little nervous and unsure of himself, claimed that the GNA has “demonstrated some flexibility” towards US exhortations to cease fire and “return to negotiations as quickly as possible” but that such flexibility had not been reciprocated by the LNA and its commander, Khalifa Haftar.

It is noteworthy in this connection that the LNA declared a ceasefire on 12 January, which was honoured in the breach by the GNA militias, who used it to organise themselves, absorb their newly-acquired Turkish military wherewithal, and integrate the Turkish military personnel and the Syrian mercenaries and terrorists into their ranks. Furthermore, on 19 May the LNA decided unilaterally to pull back by two to three kilometres on all fronts around Tripoli to allow residents of the capital to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. It called upon the GNA militias and their Turkish ally to reciprocate, but the reverse happened and they continued to bombard and launch probing attacks against LNA forces.

While in his interview Schenker showed signs of not being well informed about at least the North African aspect of his Near East brief, there is no doubt that US policymakers are well aware that among the mercenaries and terrorists brought into Libya by Turkey are many Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda elements (see here and here and here), and that the GNA is replete with affiliates of these terrorist organisations, which the US professes to fight, as well as heavily armed organised crime groups.

This leaves us with two possible conclusions: either the US is so locked into its Cold War mindset that it believes Russian support for an independent and sovereign Libya is more of a threat than jihadist terrorists, or it is not averse to a takeover of Libya by the Muslim Brotherhood and its protégés, Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda, among other Islamist terrorists. If the latter conclusion is the driver of US policy in Libya, then it suggests that the Turkish military intervention in support of the terrorists in is not just the product of Ankara’s maverick Islamist and Ottoman revivalist President Recep Erdogan, but is taking place with Washington’s blessing. If so, that would give credence to a report by the Egyptian news website Mada Masr on 19 May, which said that Egypt and the UAE — Washington’s uncritical clients in the Arab region — have already decided to end their support for the LNA and Haftar.

US to send troops to Tunisia in support of Turkish forces and Islamist terrorists in neighbouring Libya

US to send troops to Tunisia in support of Turkish forces and Islamist terrorists in neighbouring Libya

In “QuickPress”

US bleats for Islamic State group, Al-Qaeda and people smugglers in Libya

US bleats for Islamic State group, Al-Qaeda and people smugglers in Libya

In “Our Voice”

What next for Libya in the face of Turkish aggression and floundering Arab allies?

What next for Libya in the face of Turkish aggression and floundering Arab allies?

In “Home”

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Grizzly Bears are Dying and That’s a Fact


Photo by  Roger Hayden.

More grizzly bears are dying, being seen, and in conflicts with humans in and around the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). These are irrefutable facts.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) these trends are a straight-forward consequence of more bears. As a corollary, environmental change doesn’t matter to bears in this population because, as omnivores, they can freely substitute one food for another. End of story.

Unfortunately, simple explanations such as this one offered by FWP are little more than “just so” stories. Anyone who has studied wildlife populations and the environments they occupy knows that things are invariably more complicated. Data for estimating population size are always flawed and the models these data are fed into are fraught with assumptions; and no amount of statistical gimcrackery can fix it. Even more important, any student having taken Wildlife Management 101 could tell you that habitat affects numbers, behaviors, and distributions of animals — including grizzly bears. This was Chuck Jonkel’s mantra during the years he taught at University of Montana.

In other words, there is almost never a 1:1 correlation between the numbers of bears we see and numbers of bears in the population. Moreover, changes in habitat will lead to changes in where bears live and what they eat, with consequences for the rates at which they reproduce and die.

You wouldn’t know this based on what you hear from FWP. They steadfastly refuse to monitor any aspect of grizzly bear habitat or diet. And they claim that recent record numbers of deaths in the NCDE are not a problem.

Yet the approach used by FWP for managing mortality is tantamount to driving with your eyes fixed on an out-of-focus rearview mirror. The data FWP uses are on average nine years old; the models they employ rest on unsubstantiated assumptions; and they disregard much of the uncertainty in their population estimates. (You can see more in a report entitled “Heart of the Grizzly Bear Nation”).

So, what’s an alternative explanation for what we’re seeing, one that attends to the limitations of models and data, the configurations of habitats, and what we know about environmental change?

For one, the NCDE grizzly bear population has probably grown during the last 10 years, but not by as much as advertised. We have perhaps 100 more bears, not 250 more. If so, then FWP managers are wrong when they say current levels of mortality are sustainable. If you inflate the divisor in a division problem, you axiomatically under-estimate the result (i.e., death rate, or dead bears divided by live bears).

But more importantly, increases in distribution have outstripped even the most optimistic estimates of population growth, which begs the question Why? There is good reason to think that habitat productivity has declined in portions of the population’s core, partly because of escalating wildfires and the transient unproductive conditions that follow. We also lost whitebark pine to white pine blister rust. Seeds from this tree were once an important food of grizzlies along the Front.

Bears have plausibly spread out in search of alternative foods, especially east from the Rocky Mountain Front. And the spread of bears onto the plains has predictably been accelerated by the attenuation of habitats along riparian corridors. Changes in foods and habitats are almost certainly driving increased conflicts and sightings every bit as much as are increasing bear numbers.

Given the stakes of grizzly bear management, it’s time for FWP to offer us something more than convenient “just so” stories.

Posted in Environment, HealthComments Off on Grizzly Bears are Dying and That’s a Fact

The Sure Way to End Concerns About China’s “Theft” of a Vaccine: Make it Open


Photograph Source: quapan – CC BY 2.0

In the last couple of weeks both the New York Times and National Public Radio have warned that China could steal a vaccine against the coronavirus, or at least steal work in the U.S. done towards developing a vaccine. Both outlets obviously thought their audiences should view this as a serious concern.

As I wrote previously, it is not clear why those of us who don’t either own large amounts of stock in drug companies or give a damn about Donald Trump’s ego, should be upset about the prospect of China “stealing” a vaccine. Concretely, if China gained knowledge from labs in the United States that allowed it to develop and produce a vaccine more quickly, this would mean that hundreds of millions of people might be protected against a deadly disease more quickly than would otherwise be the case. If China made this vaccine available to people in the developing world, then the numbers could be in the billions.

Sounds pretty scary, right?

It is amazing that neither the reporters writing these stories nor their editors apparently gave much thought to the implications of China “stealing” a vaccine. Or perhaps, even worse, maybe they did. Anyhow, I suspect that most of the audiences of these outlets would not consider it a terrible thing if people in China or other countries could get vaccinated more quickly against the coronavirus.

But the issue of this potential theft is just the beginning of the story. If China can in principle develop a vaccine more quickly if it has access to data from labs in the United States then it must also be the case that researchers in the United States could develop a vaccine more quickly if they had data from labs in China and elsewhere. This raises the question of why we are not researching a vaccine collectively, with researchers all over the world posting their findings as quickly as practical so that teams of researchers everywhere can benefit from them?

There is a bad answer and a somewhat less bad answer to this question. The bad answer is that the goal of the researchers is to get a government-granted patent monopoly so that they can charge lots of money for a vaccine and get very rich. The less bad answer is that we rely on grants of patent monopolies to finance research. If companies didn’t have the hope of getting a patent monopoly, they would have no way to recoup the costs they are incurring paying researchers and undertaking the trials necessary to establish the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine.

The reason why the less bad answer is still a pretty damn bad answer is that it assumes that we have no other way to pay for the research and testing of a vaccine, except with patent monopolies. It should be pretty obvious that this is not the case since much of the funding for the research now taking place comes from the government.[1] However, for some reason, the idea that the government would take up the slack and pick up the full tab for developing a vaccine, including testing and going through the FDA approval, is difficult for people to conceive.

The failure of imagination here is more than a little bizarre. This is in part because the government already pays for many clinical trials through the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. However, there is also an obvious model for large-scale funding for research and development, the Defense Department.

The Defense Department will sign large multi-year contracts with major military suppliers, like Lockheed or Boeing. The contractors will typically subcontract much of the work to smaller and newer companies, but the decision on what to do in-house and what to do under contract is largely left up to the prime contractors.

There are many grounds for complaints about the military, but the fact is that we do get good weapons systems. And, we have a huge advantage with medical research over military research. There are legitimate reasons for keeping military research secret, we would not want ISIS to be able to download the plans for our latest weapons systems off the web. By contrast, there is no good reason for wanting to keep medical research secret. There could be nothing better than to have a team of researchers in another country, learn from findings here, and then build on them to develop a successful vaccine or treatment for the coronavirus. (I discuss this issue in more detail in chapter 5 of Rigged [it’s free.])

Ideally, we would have some system of international coordination where the costs of research were shared. This would require some negotiations but our current system of patent monopolies also involves difficult negotiations. Provisions on patents and related protections were a major part of every trade deal for the last three decades. These provisions have often been especially contentious. In fact, the final version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was delayed for several years over the terms on patent-related protections demanded by the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. So, while it is true that we would like a mechanism to ensure fair sharing of research costs, it is likely that negotiating this sharing will be no more difficult than it has been under the patent monopoly system.

However, in a context where the whole world is struggling to deal with a pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of people, it might be reasonable to just do the research and worry about the cost-sharing later. It would make sense for governments to fund their own research to the extent practical and require that everything be fully public as soon as possible.

If we went this route, our leading news outlets could put aside their fears that China would steal the vaccine. If they take advantage of U.S. research and rush ahead and develop an effective vaccine before our own researchers, then the whole world will benefit from having a vaccine sooner than would otherwise be the case.

If China somehow decides to break commitments and keep its vaccine secret, surely we will be able to secure a dose and reverse engineer it. This should still leave us hugely better off than if our researchers are struggling to overcome obstacles that China’s researchers have already managed to surmount. In any case, China certainly does not have a poor record of adhering to international agreements, at least not compared to the United States under Donald Trump.

We have a huge amount of potential gain from going the route of open research and very little to lose. And our leading news outlets would be able to stop worrying about China stealing our vaccine.


[1] It is worth noting on this topic that remdesivir, currently the most promising drug for treating the coronavirus, was developed to a large extent with public money, even though Gilead owns a patent on it.

Posted in USA, China, HealthComments Off on The Sure Way to End Concerns About China’s “Theft” of a Vaccine: Make it Open

Trump Administration and the Washington Post: Picking Fights Together


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

For the past several months, the Trump administration has been picking fights—using cold war rhetoric regarding China and applying a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.  The editorial writers of the Washington Post for the past few weeks have written a series of pieces that support a hard line against China, and on May 24th the Post’s lead article was a chauvinist attack on Iran that had the rare attribute of being both counterfactual and counter-instinctive.

For the past several years, both Iran and Venezuela have faced hard line sanctions from the United States, which have significantly hurt both of their economies. Venezuela and Iran have had a series of economic and financial deals over the past twenty years, and recently Iranian oil tankers have been carrying gasoline to Venezuela.  Venezuela may have the world’s largest oil reserves, but mismanagement of the industry and U.S. sanctions have crippled its petroleum industry and its gas refineries. Since Russia and China have become increasingly reluctant to assist Venezuela, Iran has stepped in to relieve fuel shortages that have contributed to a crisis in the public health and agricultural sectors. There is nothing in this arrangement that is threatening to the interests of the United States, but you wouldn’t know this from reading the Post.

Sunday’s front-page article read like a war game scenario concocted by the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.  The article stated that Iran and Venezuela were “forging a closer strategic partnership,” with five Iranian oil tankers “steaming” across the Atlantic Ocean in the “most public display of the deepening relationship.”  As a result, according to the Post, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was being given a “vital lifeline,” and Iran was being offered the “prospect of a new center of influence just across the Caribbean Sea from Florida.” .

The Post approvingly referred to the Trump administration’s invocation of the Monroe Doctrine, which was particularly laughable.  The 19th-century Monroe Doctrine was promulgated to declare that the United States would no longer tolerate European colonialism or puppet monarchs in the Western Hemisphere.  Iran hardly qualifies as a challenge, let alone a threat, on any level, but the Post relied on comments from hard liners such as Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative to Venezuela, and Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American studies from the U.S. Army War College.  The professor argued that Iran is using its tankers to “play a game of chicken” with the United States.  The Post agrees that the tankers are “testing how far the Trump administration is willing to go to shut down a budding relationship between two nations it considers enemies.”

The Post contributes to the science fiction scenario by citing comments from opposition leaders in Venezuela who claim that Iran is actually using the tankers to introduce materials for the construction of a “listening post” in Venezuela to “intercept aerial and maritime communications.”  The security commissioner for Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, explains that “for Iran, an enemy of the United States, this means they are almost touching America’s tail.”  Citing the Monroe Doctrine wasn’t sufficient for the Post, so they had to introduce language reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This imaginary scenario is particularly ludicrous because it comes at a time when Iran is moderating its approach to the West, particularly avoiding any confrontation with the United States.  Iran recently endorsed Iraq’s selection of an American-approved prime minister, who actually has ties to U.S. intelligence forces in Iraq.  Iran has stopped pro-Iranian militias in Iraq from attacking U.S. forces, and has significantly reduced attacks on merchant ships and tankers in the Persian Gulf.  Last month, Iran initiated negotiations with the United States to swap a U.S. Navy veteran held in Iran for an Iranian-American doctor detained by the United States.  Presumably, Iran is overwhelmed with the coronavirus pandemic, a disastrous economy, and increased public unrest.  It can no longer afford to confront U.S. interests.

At the very least, Iran has made a tactical shift in its dealings with the United States, which makes it particularly risible for the United States and the Washington Post to “raise alarms” over what is estimated to be 60 million gallons of  Iranian gasoline.  Moreover, any interruption in the increased tensions between Washington and Tehran could provide an opening for improved relations between the two states.

Even Donald Trump could decide that, like Tehran, Washington is also preoccupied with a pandemic, large-scale unemployment, and a shrinking economy, which would benefit by reduced tensions in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.  Trump already has Secretary of State Mike Pompeo trying to pick fights with China and Iran, so he doesn’t need the Post’s journalists and oped writers to offer jingoist support for aggressive actions.

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The Gods of Small Things


Photograph Source: Michael Coghlan – CC BY 2.0

O brave new world that has such people in it!

– William Shakespeare, The Tempest

One of the great things about the Covid-19 silver lining playbook is the opportunity it affords to come out of the closet, like Bradley Copper, about my sapiensexuality. There, I’ve said it. I’m on the cyberprowl for minds who want to have a good old-fashioned LeftHandOfDarkness mind-fuck together. Makes no difference if you’re black or white, long as you know what I mean. Zoom-Zoom. See you in/out there in our new-fangled pop-up postmod Brady Bunch world.

Being online, streaming and social mediating in my solitude, as Billie Holiday used to sing, you get to make the rounds of URLs where people appear and speak like never before, as if, suddenly, we were all in our own space capsules broadcasting from the twinkling darkness of our inner space, complete bespoke blue screens behind us: living rooms, dens, kitchens, bookcase places. Fuck, we’ve taken to this ‘lockdown’ regime like psychotic peas in a rubber pod.

The Eye on our laptops captures our every tic as we talk and talk, and all of it captured by the NSA and databased for our collective National Security — no matter where we live in the world — a panopticon of facial fractals, theory-conjured up by Michel Foucault and rendered into psychodramatic realization by endless paranoia-building subscription series, like Person of Interest (See S4E1: think of it as that first time you shot up heroin but got, instead of a thousand orgasms in one, a thousand prickle points of paranoia. Paranoia is the real opioid crisis).

Well, I’ve managed to eschew (gesundheit) such conspiracy-minded time wastages as thinking the government is out to get me, personally, per se. I want solutions to Covid-19, not more stem-cell thinking about how this could all go wrong. So, I was pleased and feeling like a couch potato activist (eyes everywhere, right?) a couple of days ago when I came across Oslo Freedom Forum Presents COVIDCon. The topics included: Pandemic censorship in China; How Democracies and Dictatorships Are Responding to the Virus; 8 Questions with Ai Weiwei; Pandemic Power Grab: State Abuse of Emergency Laws; and, my favorite, The Increasing Risk of Synthetic Biology. No, I’m not leading to a conspiracy theory. (As far as I know.)

In this session, Rob Reid and Thor Halvorssen are two guys talking turkey ‘tête-à-tête’ (but frankly, Reid’s separate TED Talk is faster) about what most people don’t even know about: There are lots of actors, mostly scientists, trying to meddle with biological processes in the lab, and that it’s getting easier and cheaper all the time to play god. I was reading that even high school kids are dabbling in some potential Diabolique. And even though I’m not a conspiracy nut, so no squirrels will be interested in me, I did have a vision of all those school mass shoot-ups being replaced with biological bullets instead of lead. Like Mose Allison says: There’s always someone out there playing with dynamite.

I started thinking about my self-isolating solitude again and I was soon a mess. I wanted to know more about this synthetic biology angle because of: see above.

And soon thereafter I discovered that the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) coming to the rescue in the form of one of their myriad projects and connections to universities and Big Pharma. You never know for sure what you’re getting with Pentagon projects — they thought up the Gay Bomb, but also gave us the Internet, and want to use robot bees to replace bees dying in a species collapse. Aside from the Gay Bomb, the Pentagon always seems to be preparing for the worst.

Through their Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3), two years now in the running, DARPA has claimed to be spearheading the US response to Covid-19 — and any future pandemic. They explain on their site:

P3 focuses on rapid discovery, characterization, production, testing, and delivery of efficacious DNA- and RNA-encoded medical countermeasures, a foundational technology pioneered by DARPA under the Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT) program that provides the body with instructions on how to immediately begin producing protective antibodies against a given threat.

Most people are unaware of DARPA’s leading edge role in advancing an “efficacious” response Covid-19. But, as we shall see, where there’s “efficacious” there’s often fire.

DARPA has been working with universities, biotechnology and Big Pharma to create a rapid-response system that can, theoretically, deal with epidemics and disease systems almost immediately. They’ve been at it for four years. The chief of communications at DARPA, Jared B. Adams, responding to my email recently said that

As part of P3 program, Abcellera and Vanderbilt University obtained first SARS-CoV-2 immune cells from a recovering coronavirus patient (Washington State) and initiated studies to identify highlight active SARS-COV-2 specific antibodies. DARPA’s antibody discovery takes days to weeks rather than months to years, and we expect antibodies to be ready for human testing by 01 AUG 2020. Seven hundred preliminary SARS-CoV-2 specific antibody targets were identified by AbCellera, which has since signed an agreement with Eli Lilly to co-develop antibody products for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.

As Abcellera CEO Carl Hansen told Business Insider recently, “The goal is to have an antibody therapy ready to begin clinical testing by the end of July.”

Abcellera, which obtained antibodies from the very first American survivor of Covid-19 (Washington state), giving it a tremendous advantage on its biotech competitors, got to work immediately and, according to Adams, “Seven hundred preliminary SARS-CoV-2 specific antibody targets were identified by AbCellera, which has since signed an agreement with Eli Lilly to co-develop antibody products for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.” This is precisely the process speed Abcellera not only envisioned but practiced in mock pandemic exercises it conducted in 2018 and 2019 as part of P3.

This brings up the three main streams of counterattack against Covid-19: conventional chemical drugs, vaccines, and antibodies. The edge goes to antibodies. They are quickest from discovery to treatment: drugs and vaccines, while potentially as effective, if not more, require far more scientific evaluation, maybe years, before they ‘hit the market’ through Big Pharma. Again, advantage Abcellera. (But, even Trump’s Solution is getting serious clinic time.)

In a piece for MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado puts it,

Pills are easy to make and easy to take, but none has yet been proved to work. Vaccines can give protection, but no one can predict when one will be available. (At a minimum it will take 12 to 18 months; 17 years since the world battled an earlier coronavirus, SARS, no licensed vaccine exists.) Antibodies, often given through an IV drip, have the disadvantage that they are complex to manufacture, but the advantage that they copy the body’s own solution.

So clearly, by virtue of its inclusion in P3, Abcellera, with its patented “lab on a chip,” which is exponentially faster than the eyeballs through microscopes approach, has a leader’s edge.

Biotech company Gilead is the leader for pill-taking offering up highly-touted remdesivir, which was showing promise with SARS, but needs to be viewed with caution (see italics above). Vaccines take at least a year to 18 months to be available; it’s probably the best route and one company has a monopoly of the vaccine — Moderna — but the availability is being fast-tracked for a platform called mRNA that has no track record. Using antibodies is like fullmetaljacketing your white blood cells to take on Ho’s Red Army. Ugly metaphor, but it does remind one that ka-ching plays a part in this, too. The competition is keen to find a solution, but it’s not necessarily out of the goodness of their hearts — even during a humanity-threatening pandemic.

Aside from the R-and-D arm of the Department of Defense, such as DARPA, there has been serious framework planning for synthetic biological weaponization of viruses and bacteria for years. I was blown away when I recently came across the extent to which such planning had taken place — not for conspiratorial reasons, but because it yet again underscores how little effort goes into walking the talk between planning for events and actually doing something about it ahead of time. Everybody who needed to know knew 9/11 was likely, but no real system was put in place to stop it, and yet, the Patriot Act, which was the culmination of years of awareness that such events were likely, was passed within days of 9/11.

Plodding my way through Biodefense In The Age Of Synthetic Biology (2018), a quick and sobering government study of the benefits and hazards of synthetic biology, and the preparation for its inevitable weaponization, which as so many Left-overs from the Sixties could attest is euphemistic cover for Bio Offense in the Age of Synthetic Biology. So, Biodefense boasts,

There are ongoing efforts to engineer microorganisms to produce fuels, act as detection devices, and clean up toxic spills. Synthetic biology is also seen as a potential means to grow organs for transplant, manipulate the microbiome, and even produce cosmetics.

Probably this is true; but that’s what’s so evil, because it acts as cover. If you weren’t careful, you might skip over the implications of “manipulate the microbiome.” We be chasing down the hoodoo there.

I recalled The Satan Bug by Alistair McClean, the kind of junk food I used to read as a kid as a break from studying Voltaire, and recalled the scene at the end when the “psychotic” plays with the hero by briefly juggling a flask of Satan buggery that could destroy the world as we know it. After “psycho” taunts our hero by letting him know he’s taken the vaccine for the virus and so is immune, instead of calling him a prick, he asks poignantly, “You mean you’d live in the world alone?

Biodefense cites how DARPA “put the MIT-Broad Institute Foundry’s design capabilities to the test; its researchers were able to deliver 6 out of 10 molecules of interest to the US Department of Defense in 90 days.” Huge success. Sounds good on the defensive level, but as American scientists have shown us, and our track record proves, we may produce the most evil ourselves to “be ready” for its use by other world actors. The government itself concedes in Biodefense that “As understanding of microbiomes increases, the possibility of misuse also increases, and it may become feasible to use synthetic biology to engineer the microbiome to transfer toxic genes, debilitate human immunity, improve pathogen entry or spread, or create dysbioses.”

DARPA’s P3 partners understand how true it is when the government advisers write in Biodefense that “Designers must consider the effects of a large array of potential variables, including DNA bases, codons, amino acids, genes and gene segments, regulatory elements, environmental context, empirical and theoretical design rules, and many other elements.” But we’ve been computer-assisted designers now for a long time. It’s equally true when they add,

Automated biological design, known in the field as bio-design automation, lowers the barrier to designing genetic constructs by automating some decisions and processes that would otherwise require a high level of expertise or a long time to carry out.

Scientists now generally concede that some evil technology has become so cheap and easy to kit-up, we might be on a time-bomb, even if Climate Change doesn’t kill us first.

A couple of years ago, without mentioning P3 or the news announced in Biodefense, Slate magazine ran a cautionary piece about DARPA and its bio syn projects titled, “DARPA’s Synthetic Biology Initiatives Could Militarize the Environment.” Notes Todd Kuiken, the article’s piece,

Since the largest proportion of funding for advanced biotechnologies, such as gene drives, appears to come from American defense agencies, researchers who depend on grants for their research may reorient their projects to fit the narrow aims of these military agencies.

This is the worry. Is it a worry specifically for Abcellera? Hard to say, but it’s worrisome to know they are connected to the American military and have run ‘virus games’ as part of the P3 program.

But the DoD’s mission is uncontroversial, and the hope is that P3-affiliated biotech firms stay true to their partnership. It’s clear that synthetic biology is a brave new world opening up before us as a collective human race and we need to find a way to get attuned. We should all be nervous when rogue scientists, such as He Jiankui, the Chinese doctor who used the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to be the first (that we know of) to clone humans. We should worry more when we learn that his bio-meddling may have involved brain enhancement and that he was motivated, ultimately, not by science, but by money — Jiankui wanted to open up a designer baby operation.

Jiankui got fined and imprisoned, and roundly condemned by peers, some of whom, in less accountable places may have been emboldened to go further. Just what we need: a Frankenstein monster unleashed that doesn’t even have a viable Arctic habitat to run away to. The monster had cobbled together enough moral compass to know he didn’t Belong. What happens if someone plays G.O.D. (god on demand) and the monster takes the joystick out of his hand and makes him (and us) eat it? Corona on the couch with a gin and tonic, clinking ice, as if in memory of the floes.

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