The Democratic Debate, Part 7


W.J. Astore

I watched the Democratic Debate last night from Iowa featuring the top six candidates.  Here’s my take on the candidates and their prospects:

Joe Biden: It’s bizarre that Biden, still ahead in most polls, is hailed as doing well in these debates as long as he shows up and avoids making major gaffes.  To use a sports analogy, it’s as if you put your ace pitcher into the game and applaud him for giving up only ten runs while walking five and throwing three wild pitches.  At least he competed, right?  Biden didn’t do poorly last night, but he didn’t shine either.  Mr. Excitement he’s not, and that doesn’t bode well if he’s the Democratic candidate for president against Trump.

Pete Buttigieg: Mayor Pete has one talent: he knows how to please older people with vapid talk that seems sincere and serious.  He has almost zero support among African-Americans and very little support among people his own age and younger.  What is his path to victory?

Amy Klobuchar:  Klobuchar poses as the adult in the room, a moderate who rejects the “crazier” notions of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  Clearly, she’s against progressive politics, but what does she stand for?

Bernie Sanders: Sanders is the one true progressive on the stage.  The man is a model of consistency and heart, and he has the strongest movement behind him.  He has the best chance of defeating Trump, but his dedication to people over corporations and profits makes him an anathema to establishment Democrats.

Tom Steyer: Steyer, a billionaire, has embraced climate change as his issue of choice.  At least he puts his money where his mouth is, but he has virtually no chance to gain the nomination.

Elizabeth Warren: Warren’s campaign concocted a phony controversy in an attempt to gain traction as the Iowa caucuses loom.  Basically, the Warren campaign claims Bernie Sanders said a woman can’t win the presidency.  It’s total nonsense.  Sanders denied it, and there are multiple video clips of Bernie advocating for a woman as president.  After Sanders issued his denial, Warren refused to address it.  She also appeared to refuse to shake his hand after the debate.  Apparently, Warren thinks the best way to distinguish herself from Bernie is to play the gender card, just as Hillary Clinton attacked Bernie in 2016 for the alleged misogyny of the so-called Bernie Bros.

As the debate dragged on, I thought carefully about which one of these candidates truly has a chance to defeat Trump in November.  Who has passion, vision, heart, and the ability to take on Trump and to call him out on all his lies and misdeeds?  I see only one candidate who can do this and win: Bernie Sanders.

Trump’s Wall and Its Meaning

They’re so proud of Trump’s wall, though new sections proved surprisingly easy to cut through

W.J. Astore

I caught this snippet via the New York Times today:

Border wall funding: President Trump plans to divert $7.2 billion from the military for the construction of a wall on the southern border, two people familiar with the plans told The Times. Congress set aside $1.375 billion for it last month.”

Diverting money that’s been appropriated by Congress is an impeachable offense, but the Democrats will do little since they know Trump will spin their opposition as being pro-immigrant and anti-American, irrespective of the lies contained in that spin.

Trump was elected in part through his fear-mongering about immigrants (he spoke of murderers, rapists, gang members, even Muslim terrorists hidden within the “caravans” approaching America’s southern border).  “Build the wall” is a popular chant at his rallies, and Trump knows the issue still stirs up his base.

What’s it all about?  Recently I was reading “Shadow of the Silk Road,” by Colin Thubron.  This is what Thubron had to say about the Great Wall of China:

As a true bulwark the Wall was senseless.  Huns, Mongols, Manchus overswept it almost at will.  The Sinologist Owen Lattimore proposed that it was built to keep the Chinese in rather than the nomads out.  Perhaps, unwittingly, it was less a physical defence than a monstrous definition.  It separated civilisation from barbarism, light from darkness.  It was an act of shuddering denial: over there is not what we are.  And it was steeped in fear. [Emphasis in original.]

“Over there is not what we are”: Trump recognizes how “his” wall serves as a dividing line between the “good” people (Americans) versus the “bad hombres” (his term) seeking to “invade” America.  And it is, as Thubron says, both a monstrous definition and an act of shuddering denial.

Of course, the wall already exists, as Greg Grandin notes in his book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”  Trump merely wants to lengthen it, mostly in areas where a wall is redundant due to already forbidding terrain.

But the wall is not about protecting America from “hordes” of “invaders.”  It’s about defining America in retrograde ways, contrasting the alleged barbarism of brown-skinned people with the civilization of (mostly) White America.

Walls demarcate and divide.  They are also a denial of common humanity.  They pit us against them in battles over turf.  In short, they’re a perfect symbol for Trump’s vision of greatness.

The Welfare Myth: Confessions of a Former Caseworker


Richard Sahn

“They drive to the supermarket in their Cadillacs and buy steak, lobster, and cartons of cigarettes.” How many times have I heard that description of welfare recipients? And it’s always a Cadillac, by the way. I inform welfare haters that I used to be a caseworker in New York City and that I and my caseworker colleagues in the unit I was assigned to never came across a serious case of cheating in two years. In fact, I became convinced that welfare recipients rarely cheat. If anything, I sometimes had to persuade my clients to pursue their rights within the system, which typically meant an increase in their benefits.

In the late 1960s, a massive state-sponsored study of the then new “Declaration System” of the New York City Department of Social Services produced startling results. Welfare applicants were not investigated to determine their financial needs. They were approved for assistance based on their word, their declaration. Researchers found very few false statements on thousands of applications.

So why does the myth of the welfare cheater continue? Whenever I bring up the welfare issue in my sociology classes students who are usually quiet invariably seize the opportunity to denounce the very idea of welfare. They try to convince me that all welfare recipients “cheat” and that nobody really needs welfare.  They assert “welfare people” are just too lazy to work and are not victims of the economic system, despite what bleeding-heart liberals, sociologists, and Marxist economists have to say.

The work ethic and the American dream are so ingrained in our culture that cognitive dissonance is produced by the very thought some people need continuous financial assistance. A more friendly position toward welfare is seeing it, not as a permanent way of life but as a temporary fix to allow an individual or family to “get back on its feet.”  But is every American equally qualified to recover from hard times, and equally able to get off public assistance?  Empirical evidence suggests not, but the myth of everyone having equal opportunity to compete and excel in America’s dog-eat-dog version of capitalism still drives national, state, and local welfare laws.

Why So Many Americans Hate Welfare

Ordinary Americans are usually anti-welfare, almost as if it is un-American to support the idea of public assistance. Even some former welfare clients I’ve encountered tend to be opposed to the idea of welfare. They may even feel guilty for accepting help from the state in the first place.

There appear to be several reasons for this opposition to welfare:

  1. Rugged individualism (from the frontier era): The belief Americans are equally able through hard work to take care of their economic needs without government assistance.
  2. The idea welfare recipients are big contributors to the national debt.
  3. The idea people on welfare don’t really need the money; that they are simply greedy and lazy. Related to this is the idea welfare recipients are all able-bodied and not impacted by mental health and related issues.
  4. The idea welfare mothers (“queens”) have children out of wedlock to get on the rolls or have their allowance increased.

When I was a welfare caseworker it took me a while, coming from a white middle-class family, to understand not only the humanitarian necessity of welfare but also the advantages to society of a generous welfare system.  For instance, making it more difficult if not impossible to obtain welfare causes needless suffering and even premature death.

Parenthood as a Full-Time Job

Aside from literally saving lives—as if that weren’t enough in itself–welfare allows parents, usually single mothers with young children, to spend more time with their children.  Isn’t motherhood, or fatherhood in some cases, a full-time job?  While a caseworker in New York City I began to realize that raising children as a single parent—most of my clients were single parents—entails hard work that is generally unrewarded by society. In answer to the question, “What do you do?” I could say I worked as a civil servant.  Welfare mothers, even as they worked hard to raise their children, had no culturally and socially respectable answer to the question, “What do you do?”

The Societal Benefits of Welfare

In my two years working for the Department of Social Services I had two epiphanies. One was that being employed, or starting one’s own business, is simply not what every adult can do. The other epiphany was that society may be better off if many jobs did not exist in the first place (such as manufacturing assault rifles for the masses). Are we not sometimes better off with people not working but living on welfare?  Welfare recipients are free to do other things with their lives which may contribute more to society rather than “work.” My reclusive friend in California who has been on SSI most of his life not only has time to converse with people in person, on the phone, or via Facebook but has also written three books and numerous articles on literary and political criticism.

Politics and Ideology

Republicans on every level of government consistently vow to drastically reduce or eliminate various social safety net programs. In the extreme this includes social security, even for the disabled. More tax breaks (mainly for the rich) can be achieved if we just didn’t give tax money away to people who didn’t deserve it, or so these Republicans claim.  Social Darwinist ideologues see economic handouts as conflicting with the laws of nature.

Even liberal Democrats rarely say they will work to improve the plight of the poor or make it easier to get on the welfare rolls. After all, the poor (underclass) don’t vote as frequently as the higher income populations. (Voter suppression is one reason.)  Welfare will continue to be a dirty word until it becomes respectable to say, “I’m on welfare. What do you do for a living?”

Richard Sahn is a retired professor of sociology and a former welfare caseworker in the Big Apple.

America is a force for good …

W.J. Astore

A friend sent along the following statement from the U.S. State Department:


My Commentary:

Sovereignty is just fine, Iraqi people — as long as you do exactly what America says.  By the way, I thought ISIS was 100% eliminated, according to President Trump.

I’m sure the Iraqi government can’t wait to have this “conversation” with the U.S. government.  Note, however, that any “conversation” about withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq is already forbidden.  So much for sovereignty!

Trump Wishes Peace to Iran while Accusing Democrats of Enabling Attacks on U.S. Troops

Trump US Iran, Washington, USA - 08 Jan 2020
Trump boasting of big missiles while denouncing Democrats

W.J. Astore

I watched Trump’s speech today to the nation on Iran.  It had the usual boasts about the U.S. military and its “big” and “lethal” missiles, the usual bombast, the usual lies.  But this passage of his speech truly struck me as beyond the pale:

Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given 150 billion dollars, not to mention 1.8 billion dollars in cash. Instead of saying thank you to the United States, they chanted Death to America.

In fact, they chanted Death to America the day the agreement was signed. Then Iran went on a terrorist spree funded by the money from the deal and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.

That’s right: the missiles used against U.S. forces last night we’re paid for by the Obama administration.  Not only that: Iran went on a “terrorist spree” funded by the “foolish” Iran nuclear treaty, spreading “hell” throughout Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  I’m sure glad Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, and other military actors in the region never spread any “hell,” despite all those Hellfire missiles launched from American drones.

So here’s a new claim for you.  If the U.S. military is losing in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, the culprit is clear: the Obama administration and by extension the Democrats, the appeasers who funded Iran and made possible all of its “terrorist” activities.

Best of all, Trump wished peace and prosperity to the Iranian people, but you heard nothing about working peacefully and in prosperous ways with the Democrats.

Clearly, Trump sees the real enemy of America: Obama and the Democrats.

Anti-war Pragmatists and Pro-war Fantasists

war weary
Tell me how this ends …

W.J. Astore

Remember when those who advocated for peace were dismissed as “dreamers”?  The great John Lennon imagined a world where peace could reign, and he wasn’t afraid of the dreamer label, because he knew it could be more than a dream.  Peace is often presented as a fantasy embraced by soft-hearted people.  War, by comparison, is a harsh reality embraced by hard-headed realists, or so we’re told.

What if it’s the opposite?  What if peace is really based on pragmatism, and war on fantasy?  What if the hard-headed realists are really those who advocate for peace via dialog, diplomacy, treaties, and the like?  And it’s the warmongers who are truly the soft-headed dreamers?

Consider the results of recent American wars.  The wars in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) were total disasters.  Ditto interventions in Iraq and Libya.  The Afghan War approaches its third decade with no end in sight.  How are these wars pragmatic or preemptive or necessary or productive?  They’ve been based on fears and fantasies.  They’ve been colossal mistakes based on lies and fantasies of power.

Indeed, it’s the neocons who have been America’s leading fantasists, starting disastrous wars driven by an ideology of American exceptionalism and warrior masculinity in which they believe they can create and control their own reality irrespective of history and the facts.  These men can’t imagine peace.  All they can imagine is a world in which American military power creates a world “safe for democracy,” which means safe for their own greed and power and profit, including profit from more and more weapons sales.

We see this fantasy at work today.  Somehow, starting wars is sold as a way to prevent them.  Killing a senior Iranian general in a foreign country without the approval of that country or Congress for that matter is sold as preventing war.  The president commits an act of war in the name of peace.

To believe this, you must be a fantasist in the extreme.  We need to denounce these pro-war fantasists for what they are.  They may fancy themselves as hard-headed men of action, but they’re really thick-headed sociopaths guided by delusional fantasies.

Update (1/5): Speaking of pro-war fantasists, I just saw this Trump tweet, which is what happens when you elect and empower a bully-boy as president:

“The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way…and without hesitation!”

Ready for War with Iran?

The Trump administration has been spoiling for war with Iran almost since the election of 2016. This article, which I posted in the spring of 2017, makes this obvious. Now we have Trump’s decision to kill Iran’s top ranking general, Qassim Suleimani, which can only escalate an already tense situation in the region. Anything is possible here, including wider war and major economic disruptions.

A couple of years ago, I remember writing that it wouldn’t surprise me to see a conflict with Iran in 2020, timed to coincide with the presidential election. And I’m hardly the only one to have predicted this. Trump does not want to lose the election. The question is: What is he prepared to do to guarantee victory, if only in his own mind? Is he willing to risk a devastating war in the Middle East? And who will act to stop him?

Trump fancies himself a tough guy, and practices posing like Winston Churchill. With a Republican Party willing to rubber stamp his every action and impulse, and with a Democratic Party that eagerly issues blank checks to the Pentagon, who is to stop Trump from bellicose actions that could lead, yet again, to a disastrous war in the Middle East?

Bracing Views

W.J. Astore

General Joseph Votel, U.S. Centcom commander, testified to the House Armed Services Committee this week that the greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East is Iran, and that the U.S. must be prepared to use “military means” to confront and defeat the Iranian threat to the region.

No doubt Iran is a pest to U.S. designs in the Middle East.  No doubt Iran has its own agenda. No doubt Iran is no friend to Israel.  But the greatest destabilizing force in the Greater Middle East?  That’s the USA.  We’re the ones who toppled Iraq in 2003, along with the legitimate government of Iran 50 years earlier.

Iran/Persia has lived in, and sometimes dominated, the Greater Middle East for 2500 years.  By comparison, the USA is a newcomer on the block. Yet it’s the Iranians who are the destabilizers, the ones operating in a nefarious “grey zone” between peace…

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