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By the numbers: Barack Obama’s contribution to the decline of US democracy

By John Weeks. This article was first published on Open Democracy.

How neoliberal doctrine undermined the Obama administration and ushered in the age of Trump.

Obama meets Trump. Press Association/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. All rights reserved.

Yes, we can!

The iconic slogan “Yes, we can!” inspired the wave of enthusiasm that swept up millions of Americans during the presidential election of 2008 and carried Barack Obama to the White House. If that slogan epitomized the beginning of the Obama presidency, he had an equally iconic ending: the first African-American president shaking hands with the first president-elect in at least 100 years endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In November 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency with almost 53% on a voter turnout of 58%. The winning percentage was the highest since 1988 and the turnout the largest for 50 years. The first non-white president took office on a surge of enthusiasm exceeding any since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 (by comparison John Kennedy went to the presidency with less than half of total votes and a winning margin of 0.2 percentage points).

The enthusiasm for Obama arose from fervent hope for specific changes: 1) a universal, affordable health system; 2) the end of two disastrous wars (Afghanistan and Iraq); 3) economic recovery from the worst collapse in 80 years; and 4) action against banks and bankers to prevent a recurrence of the collapse.

To fulfil these hopes, Obama had majorities in both houses of Congress, 58 of 100 Senators (largest majority of any party in 30 years) and 257 seats in the House (most since 1992). By any measure the new president enjoyed an overwhelming majority.  Under some circumstances the Republican minority in the Senate could prevent voting, but a determined and bold president could force votes within the arcane Senate rules.

No he didn’t!

It quickly became obvious that Obama would be anything but determined and bold; on the contrary, avoiding conflict through compromise would guide his presidency. In face of a solidly right wing Republican opposition, attempting to compromise was recipe for failure, a disaster foretold and fulfilled.

Despite the large House and Senate majorities a litany of failure dogged the first two Obama years, some partial and others presented as success. Extension of the popular Medicare programme offered the obvious method of achieving a national health system (confusingly dubbed “single payer” by its adherents). Obama yielded before opposition from private “health care” corporations and drug companies.

The result was an extremely complicated, expensive and inefficient system acceptable to private interests. To make a bad outcome worse, seeking a non-existent compromise, the president delayed passage of the “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” for so long that no one enjoyed the limited benefits before the mid-term election in 2010 (it became law in March 2010). The Republicans would use attacks on the president’s dubious triumph to regain control of the House of Representatives and almost seize the Senate.

The quickly enacted fiscal stimulus (February 2009), American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, brought the closest thing to success. Because the president failed to challenge the Republican hysteria over the fiscal deficit that the stimulus necessarily increased, the mildly successful recovery package would also serve Republican election propaganda.

Having lost the propaganda battle on health care and recovery, Obama scored a third own goal by declining to prosecute any financial executive for the illegal dealings that helped provoke the Great Recession of 2008-2010. This failure combined with massive capital replenishment of banks handed the right wing Republicans a slogan more natural to progressives, “bailout Main Street, not Wall Street”.

Finally, far from ending the two wars began by his predecessor, Obama continued to wage them, even expanding US military operations to other countries with extensive use of military drones as the preferred killing agent. The specific promise to close the brutal detention camp on Cuban soil is unfulfilled.

Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama remained popular despite his failures. Like Clinton his eight years as president would after the initial hope decline deeper and deeper into failure.  Perhaps the most shocking of these was the failure to mount serious opposition to the Republican gutting of the law protecting the right to vote, a savage blow to his fellow African-Americans. Weakening of the Voting Rights Act was de facto endorsement of state laws throughout the country restricting the rights of citizenship.

Had Obama ended two unpopular wars, supported an effective recovery programme, quickly forced through a Medicare-based health system for all, and aggressively reformed the US financial sector, he would be hailed as the greatest president since Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, he leaves condemned, yet another Democratic president whose neoliberal economic policies fed a rising of inequalities and shrinking of the well-being of the vast majority.

New Deal to neoliberalism

Wars, a flawed health care law and high unemployment did not give Donald Trump the key to the White House. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will swear in the most dangerous president in American history for a different reason. Beginning with Jimmy Carter in the 1970s the leadership of the Democratic Party enthusiastically worked to make neoliberal ideology mainstream consensus and Donald Trump is the outcome.

An equitable sharing of the benefits of economic growth is the necessary condition to sustain democracy in a capitalist society.  This condition was the basis for the so-called New Deal coalition forged by Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It would serve as the guiding principle of the Democratic Party through the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

The policies to achieve this equitable sharing had a common theme, restrictions on the functioning of markets, with the purpose of preventing the anti-social consequences of capitalist competition. Concretely these restrictions were 1) trade unions to limit labour market competition, 2) anti-monopoly laws and strict regulations to prevent concentration of corporate power, and 3) severe constraints on financial capital.

Neoliberalism was and remains the antithesis of the New Deal political economy. In contrast to preventing the anti-social consequences of market competition, neoliberalism celebrates that competition, attributing its excesses to public regulation. With this inversion of logic, apologists for financial capital blamed the infamous “sub-prime crisis” on public regulation not fraud and deception by bankers.

From labour to capital

As America entered the twenty-first century, four decades of increasing inequality caused falling working class incomes and stagnation for the middle classes. Loss of hope in fulfilling “the American dream” increasingly undermined faith in US democracy. In 1932 an analogous crisis brought Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency to execute economic and social reforms that arrested the growth of inequality and, facilitated working class power through trade unions. In doing so Roosevelt “saved US capitalism”.

In 2008 a similar task fell to Barack Obama, to propose and implement the reforms that would preserve popular support for globalization capitalism. America’s first African-American president chose instead to intensify the economic forces undermining that support.

When Roosevelt became president in 1933, US income inequality as measured by the most commonly used index, the “Gini coefficient”, was over 50, and dropped to 44 by the beginning of this third term in 1941 (down to 37 by his death in 1945 and not above 40 again until 1982). The chart below shows changes in that index of inequality during the George W Bush and Barack Obama presidencies, calculated compared to 2001 when the Bush was inaugurated.

During the Bush years inequality fluctuated, slightly higher at the end of the eight years than at the beginning (up to 45.0 from 44.6). In every year of the Obama presidency through 2015 inequality was greater than in every year that George W Bush occupied the White House.

Changes in the “Gini coefficient” measure of inequality compared to 2001, 2002-2015

Note: A coefficient of 100 means one person has all income, 0 is an equal distribution across population. Source: US Bureau of the Census

A second chart shows rising inequality with more familiar numbers. By the end of the Bush years the share of income going to the richest 20% rose by a modest 0.4 percentage point compared to 2001, with the share of the bottom 60% down by less than a percentage point (-0.7). Except for 2009, the share of the richest 20% during the Obama period was higher than in any year Bush was president. The bottom 60% had a lower share in every year Obama was president.

Percentage point change in incomes compared to 2001, shares of lowest 60% (red) and richest 20% (blue), 2001-2015

Source: US Bureau of the Census

The final chart, taken directly from the Monthly Labour Review of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows the inequality story for all US wage earners from 2007 to 2014. The vertical axis measures percentage changes in constant dollars, while the horizontal axis shows wage earners from the lowest paid to the highest.

Only the employees in the top 15% of the distribution gained an increase in real pay. The red line that includes all wage and non-wage benefits shows less concentrated gains, but even by that measure over sixty percent of earners suffered declining income. These statistics demonstrate not only the decline of working class incomes, but also the famous “hollowing out” of the American middle class.

Percentage change in real compensation & wages, US civilian workers, 2007-14

Compensation & wages vertical axis, position in distribution horizontal axis. Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Compensation” includes all non-wage benefits.

Ushering in Trump

Fifty years of democratic capitalism was the historic accomplishment of the New Deal. Relatively low and stable inequality provided the basis for what some call the “Golden Age” of US capitalism. In 1974 under a Republican presidency (Richard Nixon, replaced in mid-year by Gerald Ford) US income inequality dropped to its lowest as measured by the Gini coefficient.

Subsequently, under presidents both Democrat (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) and Republican (Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush, George W Bush) inequality rose inexorably. Rising inequality revived social divisions subsumed by prosperity during the “Golden Age.” Donald Trump encouraging and exploiting those divisions is the vehicle for a transition to authoritarian capitalism.

With Donald Trump neoliberalism fulfils its logic, destroying even the illusion of a just society.

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Huge Climate March Crowds Protest Trump's Anti-Environment Actions

By John H. Cushman Jr.

The People’s Climate March, timed to Trump’s 100th day as president, came amid a flurry of pro-fossil-fuel policy actions from the White House.

Climate marchers in front of a wall engraved with the First Amendment

The People's Climate March continued a drumbeat of calls to protect the environment for today's and future generations. “We live on a farm, and we have been seeing changes already,” said Celeste DiLeo, 13. Credit: John H. Cushman Jr./InsideClimate News

It might not be the largest crowd ever assembled on the National Mall, or the hottest spring day ever recorded in the nation's capital, but the heat was oppressive enough, and the People's Climate March impressive enough in scale to send a message.

Climate change is here, and it's real, their banners declared. And we are not going to give up in confronting its causes and holding the powerful to account.

The Donald Trump administration all week long has been serving up the policy equivalent of red meat for this green crowd. It's the Trump agenda, after all, that drove the turnout for the march in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, April 29.

Organizers estimated that 200,000 people were on hand, and given the distance and duration of the parade, filling the main thoroughfares from curb to curb, the tally did not seem exaggerated. People continued to join the march mid-afternoon, even as some early participants headed home.

Jane Eller of Kentucky lobbied her Congressional delegation ahead of the march but said she hit a wall of denial.

Jane Eller of Kentucky lobbied her Congressional delegation ahead of the march but said she was met with climate denial. Credit: John H. Cushman Jr./InsideClimate News

Jane Eller of Lexington, Kentucky, who worked for an environmental education agency there before retiring, walked across the mall with a sign declaring herself a coal miner's granddaughter and a grandmother of the solar generation. She said she had spent days trying to influence the state's Congressional delegation, urging aides to bring in scientists for briefings, to no avail: "They're all deniers," she said.

Her delegation asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) "to become a leader in all this," she said. "We asked him, 'Who should we hold accountable when the climate damage becomes intolerable?"

This march, timed to coincide with Trump's 100th day as president, resembled others since the election—the giant, all-inclusive Women's March in January, the rain-drenched March for Science last weekend. Like the others, it was mirrored in cities around the nation.

The day was glorious, bright and breezy, even if the pavement was becoming a griddle. The temperature reached 91 degrees, tying the record for this date. That was enough to bring out vendors in full summertime force: the T-shirt peddlers and ice cream trucks were doing brisk business.

Nothing energized the crowd, it seemed, more than passing in front of the Trump hotel at the site of the landmark old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. They slowed down to boo, chant "Shame! Shame! Shame!", wave their banners and take selfies, the viral currency of their social media campaign.

As the march drew closer to the White House, there was a brief sit-in stretching for several blocks. The sitting marchers chanted: "This is what democracy looks like." Other chants heard across the march included: "We will not go away, welcome to the 100th day" and "The oceans are rising and so are we."

Climate marchers pass the National Archives

The march organizers estimated that 200,000 people turned out on Saturday, filling the streets as they waved signs in their march toward the White House. Credit: John H. Cushman Jr./InsideClimate News

In conversations with dozens of marchers before the formal parade began, the protesters were universally aware of the relentless stream of anti-environmental policy decisions pouring from the White House. In the past week alone, the administration has taken actions to try to end protections against offshore drilling in the Arctic, review the conservation status of large national monuments, dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency's climate web pages, and figure out how to retreat from Paris climate treaty obligations.

Climate justice was also a running theme for many members of indigenous groups and young people in the crowd. "This is a critical time to learn from the mistakes of the past and include front-line communities in resilience planning for climate change and sea level rise," said Kilan Ashad-Bishop, a graduate student at the University of Miami, in a press-conference before the march. "What does that mean? Well, as a black woman, if you don't have someone that looks like me at the table, you are doing it wrong."

Celeste DiLeo, a 13-year-old from Plainfield, Massachusetts, stood next to her father along Pennsylvania Avenue, where the march was just getting under way. Above her, etched in marble on the edifice of the Newseum, were the words of the First Amendment protecting people's right "peaceably to assemble and to petition their government for redress of grievances." Her sign read: "Earth doesn't have 4 years."

"We live on a farm," she said, "and we have been seeing changes already."

United by shared concerns over climate change, 21 youth from across the nation are taking the federal government to court. They allege in a lawsuit that the government, in supporting policies and actions that exacerbate climate change, have put their lives at risk. About a half of the plaintiffs came to Washington, D.C., to participate in the march; the other half attended the March for Science last weekend.

"Today is great," plaintiff Isaac Vergun, 15, told InsideClimate News, while holding the end of a large banner about the lawsuit. "There's a lot of people here—more than where I'm from." Vergun's hometown of Beaverton, Oregon, has a population of about 95,000.

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Ignored By Western Media, Syrians Describe the Nightmare the Armed Opposition Brought Them

Trapped between a police state and Al Qaeda, average Syrians explain why they fear regime change.

Photo Credit: Orlok / Shutterstock.com

Supporters of the Syrian opposition have relentlessly demanded that Western observers listen to “Syrian voices.” The idea is that by absorbing the testimonies of Syrians who have experienced the violence of the conflict first hand, Westerners will know how to best help them. Yet Western media consumers have scarcely heard from ordinary people who reside within the areas controlled by the government -- the areas where the vast majority of Syrians live. Indeed, the voices of Syrians like Areej, one of many people I spoke to inside Syria’s government-held areas for this report, present a testimony that is simply too inconvenient for Western media to consider.

Areej was a university student in the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2012 when the American-backed Free Syrian Army captured the eastern half of the city. She had participated in student protests against the Assad regime and was initially sympathetic to the armed insurgents. Nowadays, however, she regrets protesting at all and even blames herself for her country’s descent into war.

“I was with the demonstrations,” Areej told me when we met in Damascus. “At the beginning of the war it was for freedom. But if I could go back to four years ago, I would not have gone out to the demonstrations because I didn’t want the situation to become like this. We regret it.”

Once the armed opposition besieged the government side of Aleppo in 2013 where Areej and the vast majority of the city’s 1.4 million residents lived at the time, they cut off the electricity and the water supply. Life became intolerable. Disillusionment with the uprising turned into resentment and before long, Areej fled to Damascus.

She became even further disturbed by the rebellion after her family’s village Jisr al-Shugour, located in Idlib Governorate, was seized by insurgents in 2015.

When Areej visited her family the following year, she was shocked at what she discovered. Suddenly trapped under Taliban-style rule, Areej was forced to cover from head-to-toe. “I stayed one year and a half without seeing my family. I hugged my father in the street and asked, am I going to get you in trouble for hugging you in public since I am a woman?” she recalled.

The insurgents renamed the center of the town “Slaughter Square,” publicly punishing people there for moral code violations like smoking and adultery. Areej complained, “The style of the armed groups is disgusting. Their beards are like 5 meters long. They think they are living like in Mohammed’s time. They are wrong. And anyway, we are in 2017. They think they are in 1014 Islamic State.”

Many of the armed groups Areej came across were made up of non-Syrian Salafi Jihadists who could not speak the local dialect. In many cases they couldn’t speak any Arabic at all. “There was a group from China, Kazakhstan, another from Pakistan, another with fighters from France,” she said, rolling her eyes. Indeed, there are thousands of Chinese foreign fighters who joined the jihad in Syria. Calling themselves the Turkistan Islamic Party, they helped spearhead the seizure of Areej’s village. But they weren’t alone.

Each street corner seemed to be controlled by a different faction. Every faction spray painted their name on the walls to demonstrate their claim over a street. She remembers on one wall where a rebel group inscribed the popular slogan, “Democracy is the religion of blasphemy.”

Areej noticed that much of the graffiti was scrawled by foreigners. “The groups that are governing the area my family is from wrote their names on the walls in bad Arabic,” Areej recalled, shaking her head in disdain. Her hometown was suddenly teeming with Frenchmen. “Syrian people are dying to reach France while people from France come here to kill Syrians,” she complained.

She eventually helped her family escape Jisr al-Shogour. They joined her in Damascus where they are internally displaced refugees dependent on UN aid. “There are no winners,” said Areej. “All of the countries—Russia, Iran, America, Saudi Arabia—they are playing with us. We are like toys.” Yet she still wants the government to vanquish the insurgents because the alternative they present to Assad is so terrifying.

Worst media coverage in modern history

The voices of Syrians like Areej simply do not fit within the accepted narrative that justifies the West’s geopolitical aims. And it is wholly out of line with the content that dominates the Qatari state outlet Al Jazeera, which has functioned as a 24/7 vehicle for the Syrian armed opposition. And so she and others like her have been ignored.

Like 18 million Syrians, Areej lives under the control of the Syrian government. Seven million of them are internally displaced refugees who have fled from the areas conquered by the insurgents and ISIS. Only about 2.5 million people live under the opposition’s control, while some 1.8 million live in areas dominated by ISIS.

The coverage of Syria by Western media contains little resemblance at all to the lived experiences described to me by the people I met when I visited the areas where most Syrians live in 2016.

Having watched for years as Syrian expatriates promoting regime change from abroad occupy the limelight, Syrians inside the country have developed a strong sense of resentment.

In the United States, two of the Syrians most prominently featured by mainstream media are Lina Sergie Attar, CEO and co-founder of the Karam Foundation, and Zaher Sahloul, the former head of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). Both have been pushing for years for the US to bomb Syria, and have set up advocacy arms to promote their aims.

Writing under the pen name Amal Hanano for Al Jazeera in 2013, Attar agitated for the US to go to war against the Syrian government. She claimed to be speaking on behalf of Syrians but she hasn’t been to the country since 2008.

Despite providing medical services in areas controlled by Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Sahloul’s SAMS has received millions in support from the US Agency for International Aid and Development. Both his organization and Karam have collaborated on Syria with the Zionist and Islamophobic Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. They have therefore been branded with the Western media’s stamp of approval.

Attar was a guest on Democracy Now the day after President Donald Trump bombed Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack that the US blamed on the Syrian government. “I am very happy that there is one less airfield for Bashar al-Assad to use to kill his own people,” Attar told Amy Goodman. However, residents near the targeted al-Shayrat airbase told the LA Times that the base was instrumental in protecting them from ISIS.

Zaher Sahloul, another vocal advocate for US military intervention who has also appeared on Democracy Now, claims that SAMS provides medical care in opposition areas, but never specifies that these areas -- like eastern Aleppo before the government recaptured it or Idlib today -- are under the control of Salafi Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda. In Idlib, the Al-Qaeda-controlled area where SAMS supports the rebel-run administration, “schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls,” according to Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma's Middle East Studies Center.

During my trip to Aleppo, the center of the Western media’s attention and one of the most misunderstood places on Earth, I met Sameer, a 28-year-old Aleppo native and Aleppo University graduate. (Sameer asked me to change his name to protect him from retaliation by extended family members who have  joined rebel groups). He complained to me that pro-interventionist Western Arabs who dominate the narrative come from one of two camps.

“Most Syrians in the West who are today’s pro-opposition activists are descendants of Syrian and Egyptian-expelled Muslim Brotherhood families or they are ex-aristocrats who lost their lands due to socialist policies in the 1950s and 60s,” he told me. “Now they speak out against the government from the safety of America.”

His description reminded me of right-wing Cubans who formed a vast apparatus in Miami to lobby for overthrowing Cuba’s communist government or shady influencers like Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who convinced Washington power brokers that he would usher in a democratic, Israel-friendly government if it agreed to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Before the war, Sameer was just out of college and earning $350 monthly as a sales manager. Today, because of inflation due in large part to draconian US and EU sanctions pushed by Western opposition activists, he works twelve hours a day, six days a week and makes about $47 a month.

One reason rebel groups still have fighters is because they pay salaries to average Syrians, especially in areas where the state has been expelled, where residents are most desperate to feed their families. With the Syrian economy teetering on the edge of collapse, the sanctions provide the armed groups with an endless stream of economically desperate recruits. In other words, Western sanctions are fueling the war.

Sameer is among the 18 million Syrians -- over75 percent of the country’s population -- that live in government-controlled areas. Like Areej, he supports Syria’s government out of strong opposition to the religious fundamentalism and brutality of the armed groups, which they perceive as a foreign invasion force that will eradicate their families if they win.

The US media tends to avoid any factual analysis of the rebels, their goals or their extremist ideology. In doing so, they avoid some of the most crucial questions of the conflict: Who will succeed Assad if his government collapses? And what will happen to the two million Christians, the Shia minorities, and the masses of secular Syrians who have no place under the religiously exclusivist rule the Salafist insurgents have imposed on areas they control?

A recently published report by the London-based IHS Jane Terrorism and Insurgency Centre hinted at the answer. The report found what has always been obvious to Syrians living in government controlled areas: the Islamic State, or ISIS, is the Syrian government’s chief opponent and would be the primary beneficiary of regime change. “Any further reduction in the capability of Syria’s already overstretched forces would reduce their ability to prevent the Islamic State from pushing out of the desert into the more heavily populated western Syria, threatening cities like Homs and Damascus,” the report concluded.

To avoid acknowledging inconvenient truths, American media tends to shift all the blame for the conflict onto the Syrian government, spinning out a convenient narrative of a one-sided war pitting a cartoonishly evil regime that enjoys killing children against a ragtag team of freedom fighters who were forced to take up arms to protect Syria’s civilian population. Assad is invariably portrayed as a uniquely evil figure with no rational capacity -- an “animal,” as Donald Trump called him -- while the atrocities committed by his Western-backed adversaries, most recently in Rashidin, where over 80 Shia evacuees, mostly women and small children, were slaughtered by a suicide bomber, are ignored or whitewashed.

For the Western mainstream media, the very existence of Syrians like Sameer -- ordinary people who have been forced into a corner and who now view the government in Damascus as the only thing standing between themselves and life (or death) under Salafi-Jihadist warlords -- is perhaps the most uncomfortable reality of the conflict.

Even the progressive American left, which has traditionally been skeptical of pro-war propaganda, has bought into the mainstream version of the Syrian conflict. Across the political spectrum, from the New York Times to Democracy Now — the supposed bastion of alternative media — we hear strikingly similar talking points supporting intervention. The impact of such coverage on the antiwar movement cannot be overstated. In private, leftists of all stripes tell me that they are afraid to speak out against the destruction of another state under the guise of humanitarian intervention for fear of being mocked as “anti-imperialists” or accused of Islamophobia and “Assadism.”

American media outlets from right to left seem to imagine that there is a democratic mass movement living in Al Qaeda’s Idlib. Or they insist that the uprising was always moderate and democratic until Assad’s bombs transformed protesters into armed and radical insurgents, a common talking point that permeates any discussion of Syria. According to Syrian protesters I spoke to, both of these claims are at best simplifications, and at worst, complete myths.

Two revolutions

From the perspective of the Syrians I met who witnessed the protests of 2011, there was never one single unified democratic uprising. Some protests were led by idealistic young people who wanted basic democratic reforms. Others were religiously conservative and devoted to Islamist oriented demands.

“There were always 2 parallel streams in the Syrian uprising at the beginning. The civil activists who wanted democratic reform and change in the form of a secular state, and the conservative stream, which was markedly more Islamist and sectarian in its tone and demands,” Edward Dark, an activist from Aleppo who participated in the city’s pro-democracy protests, told me.

“The former was mostly urban, the latter rural,” he explained. “As the uprising went on and the violence intensified, the civil movement became increasingly silenced and weak, while the Islamist movement became quickly more militant and radicalized.”

Video footage of an anti-regime protest in the Syrian city of Baniyas on March 18, 2011, for example, shows an imam listing protester demands, including a call for gender segregated schools and for women teachers to wear the niqab, both practices banned by the regime. His demands were met with raucous cheers, applause and religious chants from a large, all-male crowd of demonstrators. These videos were often promoted by US media as proof of Syria’s democratic uprising at the time. But few observers bothered to listen to what the protesters were actually saying.

Opposition activists in the Syrian village of Hula echoed these same right-wing demands to journalist Nir Rosen in 2011. "They were upset about the ban of the niqab, or full veil, on women in public schools - while the medical student complained that the books of the medieval Islamic scholar and Salafi source, Ibn Taimiya, were banned,” Rosen reported at the time.

Of course, there were pro-democracy protests, but the uprising failed to spread along any unified political lines. The revolt presented a mix of religious conservatives and democratic-minded reformers. Depicting these disparate groups as one in the same would be the equivalent of conflating left-wing American protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter with the right-wing Tea Party protests or Trump rallies.

According to Dark, “most civil activists refused to support an armed uprising, and either went into exile and remained silent, or became active on a solitary basis. Those who switched to the armed camp did so mostly out of sectarian, or personal reasons (revenge over a death for example). The rest who remained either turned their back on the armed uprising, or actually turned against it as they saw it was now being used a vessel to destroy the country and no longer championed any ideals of freedom and democracy and instead encompassed a violent Islamic extremism that was contrary to what they were struggling for.”

“The wake-up call for me was when rebel groups from the neighboring towns stormed Aleppo in spring 2012, bringing with them a wave of violence, looting and destruction the likes of which Aleppo hadn't seen in centuries. A particular incident I can clearly remember was seeing black Qaeda flags at a checkpoint in my city, and having a foreign fighter ask Syrian people for their IDs. That's when I knew everything had gone horribly wrong, and it was all over for our side of the ‘revolution’,” he said.

Dark was heavily attacked for refusing to support the armed insurrection. “Those outside Syria called me a traitor for turning my back on what they still saw as a ‘Syrian revolution’ as was to be expected from people who never lived and saw what we did and only got their news from social media or global news networks,” he said.

“Most Syrians also seem to think the Syrian regime is infinitely more preferable to the anarchy of a failed state ruled by extremist Islamists. I would invite anyone who thinks the opposite to come to Syria and try living in rebel vs regime controlled areas, or to imagine that some of those rebels he supports came over to his city and took over power there,” he added.

As another Syrian told me, “We are trapped between a police state and al Qaeda. Of course I choose the police state.” For many Syrians they prefer a state to no state at all.

Getting sectarianism wrong

Anas Joudeh, an attorney and political activist in Damascus, says he and his colleagues, not the armed groups, represent the real opposition in Syria. Joudeh heads the Nation Building Movement, a civil society opposition group that works to build domestic and organic nonviolent opposition from within the country.

“I will not accept anybody from Ahrar al Sham or Jaish al Islam or Mujahideen or whatever guy in those ranks to be at the table of the political discussion. If we do that, what next?  Should we appoint Ahrar al Sham as Defense Minister of Syria? They will kill me. I’m not talking about minorities. I, who was born to a Sunni Muslim family from Damascus, will not accept this. They will attack me first,” he told me when we met in Damascus late last year.

Joudeh was ecstatic at the eruption of protests in 2011 but quickly became disenchanted with the sectarian flavor of the insurgency. After some of the opposition took up arms and began to organize into Islamist factions, Joudeh stepped in to help mediate between the government and the armed groups and was close to reaching a negotiated ceasefire. But the emergence of ISIS changed everything.

“Everything collapsed when ISIS took Mosul,” Joudeh told me. “The armed groups in Aleppo and in Idlib said we can’t have any kind of negotiation with the regime now because our guys will go to ISIS and we will lose everything. We have to keep some kind of balance with ISIS. So they said we will not attack ISIS because we are brothers with the same ideology. They are Muslims like us. The whole scene changed. You have to look now for the civilians under their control, but [the armed groups] are out of the equation,” recalled Joudeh.

Joudeh strongly disagrees with the notion, common in US media and among opposition advocacy groups operating in the West, that the Syrian government is committing genocide against the country’s Sunni population.

“It’s always easy to have a simple view of what’s happening. That’s the problem with the Americans,” he commented. “They think it’s all sectarian. But until now we didn’t have this religious war in Syria. If you go to Tartous and Latakia you have almost one million refugees from Idlib. The regime is not an Alawite regime. It’s an oligarchy. It’s about self-interests.”

Joudeh pointed to Aleppo as an example: “The western side of Aleppo [that was] controlled by the regime is mainly Sunni. And they are totally pro-regime. The roots of the crisis are mainly social not religious.”

The stakes

The armed insurgency seeking to topple the government, on the other hand, is exclusively Sunni and has openly expressed genocidal ambitions that Western media tends to downplay, if not ignore altogether.

The insurgency;s sectarianism is even more dominant today given that the vast majority of the rebellion has merged with Al Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, called on the group’s Syria affiliate to “prepare yourselves for a long battle with the Crusaders and their allies, the Shiites and Alawites.”

Syria may be a dictatorship but it is also a religiously pluralistic and culturally rich society that would be shattered by a Salafi-jihadist takeover.

Mahmoud Abdel Latif al Jamil Ahmed was an Imam in East Aleppo in 2012 when it was captured by rebels. He worked at the endowment ministry of liaisons affairs. He told me he was arrested by the insurgents and charged with the following crimes: Writing in a newspaper they did not like, naming his son Hassan Nasrallah (after the leader of Hezbollah) and failing to instruct his congregants to protest the Assad regime after Friday prayers.

On June 27, 2012, he says he was almost assassinated “because I did not agree with their [the rebels] ideas. They tried to shoot me. They killed 11 sheikhs, four of whom were working with the endowment ministry.”

Another Imam who asked to go by Dr. Rami, added, “They are the enemy of humanity. The mosaic we are living with in Syria is incompatible with them. Those killing Sunnis are the same as those claiming they are defending Sunnis.”

He blamed the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia for inciting fanaticism that is antithetical to Islam. “Our religion calls for tolerance and free speech,” Rami insisted. “How far are the terrorists from these concepts?” He referenced the role of Saudi-born clerics like Abdullah al-Muhaysini, whom he called “Al Qaeda’s “rock star Sheikh,” in inspiring rebel atrocities.

In Aleppo, I also met the city’s Bishop Youssef Tobji, a leader of the city’s threatened Christian Maronite community. “If you respect us, please don’t say ‘rebel’ in front of us,” Tobji demanded. “They killed our children, our history. They are terrorists.”

The bishop then turned to me and asked how America, the target of the 9/11 attacks, could arm groups associated with Al Qaeda and then have the audacity to glorify such people as rebels. I struggled to offer him an answer.

Rania Khalek is an independent journalist living in the Washington D.C. area.

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Protesters Take Net Neutrality Issue To FCC Chair's Home

By Kevin Zeese, www.PopularResistance.org

Above: Protests urging net neutrality under Title II were outside of Ajit Pai’s Arlington home on May 14, 2017. Photo by Anne Meador, DC Media Group.

Pai Needs to be Personally Protested Because He Comes to the FCC With a Personal Agenda.

Despite public opinion and the facts, he intends to serve the Telecom Industry. Pai is behaving like he is still Verizon’s lawyer, not someone required to serve the public interest.

Arlington, VA – Ajit Pai, the Chair of the FCC, is on a mission to destroy the Internet by reclassifying it so that it is no longer a common carrier where we all have equal access and repeal net neutrality rules so Comcast, Verizon and A&T can discriminate based on content.

Net neutrality protesting outside of Ajit Pai's home on May 14, 2017. By Anne Meador, DC Media Group.

Net neutrality protesting outside of Ajit Pai’s home on May 14, 2017. By Anne Meador, DC Media Group.

Net neutrality activists began a vigil at the FCC chairman’s home in Arlington on Sunday, May 14 to protest. They will continue on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday until the public meeting at the FCC on Thursday, May 18. Twenty people stood outside of his home holding signs urging “Save The Internet,” “We Want Democracy Not Net Monopolies,” “Ajit Pai Stop the Lies” “Protect the Internet” and “Equal Access for All.”

The protest was supported by every neighbor who spoke to them, one even offered the use of their bathroom if net neutrality advocates needed it. Three of the participants were from the neighborhood and attended because the week before they found a door hanger describing Ajit Pai and the issue on their front door. The door hangers were placed on 200 doors in Pai’s neighborhood so when the protest occurred,people would understand what was happening.

Some of Ajit Pai neighbors came out and joined the protest in his neighborhood. May 14, 2017. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

Some of Ajit Pai neighbors came out and joined the protest in his neighborhood. May 14, 2017. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

Pai has made it clear in public statements that he intends to repeal the Title II classification of the Internet as a common carrier. He also intends to repeal net neutrality rules that allow regulation so that there can be no discrimination in access to content on the Internet. The former Verizon lawyer is acting in the interests of his former employer and other big telecoms rather than in the public interest. He is announcing what looks like a sham public comment proceeding on May 18 since he has already announced his decision. It is going to take an overwhelming mobilization of people to prevent him from destroying Internet freedom.

CLICK HERE TO SEND HIM A DIRECT MESSAGE.

Lee Stewart protests outside Ajit Pai home on May 14, 2017. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

Lee Stewart protests outside Ajit Pai home on May 14, 2017. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

The Internet has been a vibrant tool for innovation, creativity, free speech and independent media and an engine for the economy because there is equal access. Under Title II, as it is currently classified, the Internet is a common carrier like electricity coming to your home. Title II is also essential for putting in place net neutrality rules as the DC Court of Appeals ruled when Verizon sued the FCC in 2014. Net neutrality is the idea that access to the Internet should not be based on content. If the content is legal then it should be treated like all other content on the web. Preference cannot be given to sites whose content is approved by the Internet Service Providers, e.g. Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, and corporations and people cannot purchase better service than others. Equal access for all is the current rule and we must protect it.

Kevin Zeese protesting outside of Ajit Pai home on May 14, 2017. By Anne Meador of DC Media Group.

Kevin Zeese protesting outside of Ajit Pai home on May 14, 2017. By Anne Meador of DC Media Group.

Complicating the issue further is that Internet Service Providers are rapidly becoming Internet content providers too. Comcast now owns NBC/MSNBC, AT&T is seeking to purchase CNN, Verizon owns Huff Post. AT&T already owns the largest pay-TV provider in the US thanks to last year’s purchase of DirecTV.  If the ISP’s are able to discriminate based on content, then they can prioritize their content and suppress others’ content. This sets us on a path towards monopolization and consolidation of the Internet as commercial media is now.

The critical issue for our future is to keep the Internet competitive and creative, where innovators in products, services and political thought have a place where they can break through and help lead humankind to advance. The telecom corporations, with their well-paid spokespeople like Grover Norquist, are putting out a fog in order to increase their profits and take advantage of the Internet. Here are some thoughts to consider:

- Net neutrality is essential as we cannot have a free market of ideas and services if a handful of corporate monopolies (created with the assistance of government) can control what people see on the Internet. Monopoly control of access and quality of web service is anti-free market. Repealing net neutrality is crony capitalism destroying a free market of products, services and ideas.

- A competitive market requires that everyone have equal access to the Internet. Tim Berners Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, wrote in Keeping the Internet Competitive that when the trucking industry was deregulated it worked because everyone had access to the roadways and could go wherever they needed to go without restrictions. Competition on the Internet works because everyone has equal access to it and can go where they need to go without restrictions. Title II is the strongest legal foundation to protect equal access.

Every conversation with Pai neighbors was positive. No one in the community criticized the protest. Neighbors of Pai oppose what he is doing. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

Every conversation with Pai neighbors was positive. No one in the community criticized the protest. Neighbors of Pai oppose what he is doing. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

-Start-ups for Net Neutrality” is 1,000-member group of start-up businesses that have written to Commissioner Pai urging him to keep net neutrality and Title II. They see it as essential for allowing new businesses to compete, to be able to put out their product or service and get a niche in the economy and be able to challenge existing businesses. In their letter to Pai they write, after applauding efforts to create a faster Internet, that:

We also depend on an open Internet—including enforceable net neutrality rules that ensure big cable companies can’t discriminate against people like us. We’re deeply concerned with your intention to undo the existing legal framework.

Without net neutrality, the incumbents who provide access to the Internet would be able to pick winners or losers in the market. They could impede traffic from our services in order to favor their own services or established competitors. Or they could impose new tolls on us, inhibiting consumer choice. Those actions directly impede an entrepreneur’s ability to “start a business, immediately reach a worldwide customer base, and disrupt an entire industry.” Our companies should be able to compete with incumbents on the quality of our products and services, not our capacity to pay tolls to Internet access providers.

Protest for net neutrality at FC Chair Ajit Pais house on May 14, 2017. Photo by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Protest for net neutrality at FC Chair Ajit Pais house on May 14, 2017. Photo by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The same is true for entrepreneurs and small business. They need an open Internet accessible equally to all in order to compete, innovate and succeed. No person or business should be paying tolls for better Internet service.

- The same is true for media. Pai is also allowing big mergers so the already concentrated corporate media is getting more concentrated. Upcoming is a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which includes CNN and HBO. If Comcast — who owns NBC/MSBC is legally allowed to regulate access to the Internet by content, what will this mean for alternative, independent and non-profit media — or to social media — that challenges the narrative of the corporate mass media? They can throttle other views and without net neutrality it will be legal. Think of the Internet as a mall where the owners allow you in but puts the stores they own closer to the entrance and places obstacles in the way of getting to their competitors. That would be the opposite of a competitive market. It would be a closed market controlled by a corporation.

Protest outsid of Pai's home on May 14, 2017. By Eleanor Goldfield- In the future ISP’s that own MSNBC , CNN and other media will have the power not to allow competitive news sources or advocacy news sources to stream live on their broadband networks. If the ISP’s have the choice to shut down independent news sources that compete with them for viewers, they will. That is what is coming. The Internet will be more of a tool for big media (and government) propaganda and shut down the vibrant free speech that a wider media is allowing to occur.

Unfortunately, because the telecoms choose not to compete with each other, most people do not have a choice of provider. They are in Comcast, Verizon or AT&T territory so they have nowhere else to go. That is why they get away with overpriced access, lousy service and slow Internet speeds compared to the rest of the world. It is also why they are among the most unpopular corporations in the country. Monopolies do not need to create faster Internet like the rest of the developed world has, and they will not need to be content neutral or allow equal access to all if Title II net neutrality rules are repealed. Don’t let that happen. Act now to protect our Internet.

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The post-Trump era?

By Doug Henwood. This article was first published on LBO News.

How much longer can this go on? As I write this, PredictIt gives 71/29 odds that Trump will last the year, but it’s mighty tempting to buy the “no”—especially after the revelation that he asked Comey to shut down the Flynn investigation. (Disclosure alert: I bought 100 shares of “no” at $0.28.)

What is the endgame of the people, mostly Democrats, pounding the drums most heavily? Do they want to impeach Trump, which seems a long shot given Republican control of Congress? Do they want to bruise his weak ego so badly that he resigns? Clearly the job is much harder than he ever imagined—and, by the way, what reasonably sentient person over the age of 8 ever thought the presidency wasn’t grindingly hard? But he also wants adulation, not the relentless volleys of shit he’s gotten. It’s not impossible to imagine him just walking offstage, especially if his legal situation gets seriously dicey.

What then? President Pence? If Pence were president, the entire Republican dream agenda would sail through Congress in like three weeks. Pence spent a dozen years in Congress (Tea Party branch) and four years as governor of Indiana; he’s an appalling figure but he knows how things work. He might not be able to overcome his party’s internal divisions, but he probably could do a better job than Trump, and every day would not be a circus as it is now.

DonnyMike

Pence is a horror—fiscal sadist, misogynist, homophobe, lover of the carceral state. He’s repeatedly described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” though given today’s modern GOP, it’s not clear there’s much of a difference among these features. (He should have said he’s a reactionary Christian; there are plenty of other kinds.) He’s a creationist who rejects climate change, thinks stem cell research is “obsolete,” and once actually said that “smoking doesn’t kill.” His anti-abortion law was the most extreme in the country. His cuts to Planned Parenthood led to a rural HIV epidemic. Like Sessions, Pence is a maximalist on drugs, including weed. He’s hot to privatize Social Security. He likened the Supreme Court’s upholding of Obamacare to 9/11.

Should Trump get pushed out, the orchestrated campaign of healing would be painful. It’s not far-fetched to imagine leading Democrats channelling Gerald Ford’s “our long national nightmare is over.” There would be something of what Wall Street calls a “relief rally” on the transition, and it would perversely grease the way for Pence to make the U.S. more like the Indiana he left behind. We should be fighting to keep him in office, as fatally damaged goods.

Several things seem to be driving this campaign to squeeze Trump out, aside from the obvious fact he’s an unstable ignoramus. Dems still can’t get over the fact that they lost to the most unpopular candidate in the history of polling, but instead of blaming their own terrible candidate (the second-most unpopular candidate in the history of polling) and the slavers’ legacy, the Electoral College, they want to blame Russia. (Time was they blamed Comey too—remember when Paul Krugman said that “Comey and Putin installed a crazy, vindictive can’t-handle-the-truth person in the White House”? But he’s since been rehabilitated.)

But that’s not all: a large part of the political class (Hillary prominent among them, along with John McCain), the security establishment, and their contract-hungry patrons in the military–industrial complex all want desperately to make Russia the enemy, and are reviving zombie tropes from the Cold War to promote their cause. Trump may well have friends in the Russian mob, but his resistance to elite hostility towards the country is one of the few non-awful things about him.

It’s been stunning to watch liberals cheering on the security state’s war-by-leak against Trump. He’s odious, but he is the legally elected president—under an absurd electoral system, but that’s the one we’ve got. (Makes you wonder what they would have done to Sanders, if by some unimaginable fluke he’d won.) And yet we’ve seen months of praise for the CIA and the FBI as the magic bullets who could deliver us from the short-fingered vulgarian.

The defenses of the CIA began with Trump’s disparaging remarks about the Agency before taking office, which were taken as near-blasphemous. For an amateur like Trump, such attacks were extremely risky. In early January, Chuck Schumer presciently warned (on the Maddow Show, of course): “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community—they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you.” You’d almost think that he knew what would come next: an endless series of leaks portraying Trump as Putin’s towel boy and, as an extra-special bonus, a pervert (the piss tape)—all applauded by liberals, with little regard for the CIA’s 70-year history of lying, assassination, and coups.

Then came the Comey firing, and suddenly the FBI was a noble organization as well. It’s far from that, and has always been. As Mark Ames reports in his little history of the Bureau, it has no legal charter; Congress didn’t want to authorize a secret police so Teddy Roosevelt created it by executive fiat. Much of the Bureau’s history was been about persecuting communists—and gay people—and smearing its enemies. It spent the 1960s and early 1970s trying to ruin Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, and and the New Left. In other words, it’s been political from the very first, and all these current worries about “politicizing” the FBI are Grade A bullshit.

Which brings us back to the endgame issue. Democrats look to be extending the strategy of their failed 2016 campaign by being the not-Trump and nothing more—it’s all they’ve got. They are making no visible effort to come up with an appealing agenda as an alternative to the deeply unpopular one the GOP has on offer. In fact, they’re annoyed at Bernie Sanders for trying to get the party to talk about policy, which is somehow seen as an act of narcissism in the Beltway worldview:

But the senator, who’ll be 79 the next time the New Hampshire primary rolls around, is continuing to put himself at the center of the conversation. He’s introduced a Medicare-for-all bill this week that he hopes will force others to sign on.

Imagine that! Pushing a bill to expand health insurance coverage at a moment when Republicans are trying to take it away. The ego of that man.

The party’s strategy can’t be counted a success on conventional measures; Gallup reports that the Dems have lost 5 approval points since November, leaving the two parties with near-identical approval ratings (D: 40%, R: 39%).

Party popularity

 

During the early days of the Trump administration, it seemed like a serious left opposition might take form. That‘s a hazy memory now that so many liberals and even leftists are taking dictation from the security state and throwing around words like “treason.” We can do better than this, can’t we?

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