by Himani and Natalie
The news has been wearing down on all of us lately. It feels like everything is just so completely politicized: nothing is matter of values or truth, every decision is made with an eye towards political gain. Joe Biden announces his VP pick next week, and we are less than 100 days from the US presidential election. It feels impossible to overstate the importance of this election for the US, certainly, but I would argue well beyond that as well (more on this see below). This week’s Extra! Extra! offers a perspective on what, exactly, is at stake on November 3rd. Next week, we’ll turn our focus towards the election itself.
Perhaps This Is the Only Human Truth: Power Corrupts
Himani: In my darkest moments, sometimes I wonder if our common humanity only lies in our capacity for selfishness and cruelty all tied to a pursuit of power and control. This is certainly a thread that has run, unbroken, through history.
This article on Putin and other former KGB officers’ geopolitical machinations was an eyeopening read. I knew the outlines of some of this before, but I never had the dots so clearly connected for me: the Russian leader’s motivation for manipulating foreign elections, the support he’s found in that endeavour among conservatives across the West and how it is all tied to the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the most extraordinary passages from this article:
“It is incredible, but a group of cynical, corrupt ex-KGB officers with access to vast quantities of illegal money—operating in a country with religious discrimination, extremely low church attendance, and a large Muslim minority—have somehow made themselves into the world’s biggest promoters of “Christian values,” opposing feminism, gay rights, and laws against domestic violence, and supporting “white” identity politics. This is an old geopolitical struggle disguised as a new culture war.”
Meanwhile, even in countries that aren’t (to my knowledge at least) playing large-scale geopolitical games, corruption continues to be the forbidden fruit that far too many leaders reach for. I had no idea about this massive corruption scandal involving the former Malaysian PM until I met a woman from Malaysia while I was traveling in Cambodia last December. The PM was found guilty in his first corruption trial just this week.
Corruption, greed and the relentless pursuit of power sometimes feel completely abstract. But what makes it real is the human toll of those decisions. The Srebrenica massacre was one of the greatest atrocities committed within my lifetime. And if the ethnocentric pursuit of power that led to that horror weren’t bad enough in and of itself, new documents reveal that the global response — led by the Clinton administration — was itself politically calculated.
Let’s be clear: I am never a fan of war. But pushing for a peace deal between groups when one has just committed genocide against the other doesn’t seem like the right solution, either. Truly, I don’t know what the answer is. Everything I read about the decisions made by the Clinton administration regarding atrocities like this one makes it clear that not intervening can be just as culpable a decision as going to war.
What I do know, is that making that decision with your electoral prospects in sight is truly just treating the world’s people as your personal plaything. And that is how the US has, always, treated its foreign policy, which is the real problem.
So Coming Back to This Present Moment and the Pandemic…
Himani: The pandemic has put the corruption and the relentless pursuit of power that has always defined humanity into sharp relief.
Every single aspect of the US’s coronavirus response is riddled with such blatant corruption you’d think we were watching a movie. Again and again, I find myself in awe with each new report I read. Kushner put together a group of his buddies to come up with a federal coronavirus response that was inadequate at best; in the words of Vanity Fair: “Even the smallest of Jared Kushner’s solutions to the pandemic have entangled government agencies in confusion and raised concerns about illegality.”
But wait! That’s not even the punchline! That plan never really saw the light of day because in the spring the pandemic was mostly affecting blue states. One public health expert who was close to the White House’s coronavirus task force put it plainly: “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”
And the breadth of that corruption across organizations and industries is truly dumbfounding. From the HHS hiring a Trump crony to take over data collection from the CDC to a group of scientists hell bent on bending science to keep the economy open to Sinclair media coming within an inch of airing blatant lies about the pandemic on local news channels to Major League Baseball’s brazenly inadequate plan to start the season — it truly does seem as though every area of life is riddled with blind corruption. I can’t and won’t call it willful ignorance because the facts have been apparent for months now. All of these people are choosing to believe and spread lies, to make inappropriate decisions because it furthers their bottom lines or political aspirations or both.
Himani: The US economy has taken the hardest hit on record because of this pandemic and all conservatives can think about is ensuring that the money keeps flowing in their own pockets. In case it was truly not clear to anyone what was being prioritized here, Congressional Republicans said the quiet part out loud with their latest attempt at a relief bill.
Himani: Of course, I’m writing from the US and so I follow that most closely, but this is true the world over. Here are just a few examples from some of the hardest hit places.
But the Pandemic Isn’t the Only Arena Where America’s Craven Leaders Have Revealed Themselves
Himani: There has always been an unbreakable bond between greed and ethnocentric nationalism. The fear that someone you’ve demonized as an “other” has gained or could gain power or money or both is a story as old as history itself. Indeed that connection between greed and white supremacy was built into the foundation of the US.
Writing for Slate Julia Craven connects white supremacist violence to the pandemic itself:
And once again, Republicans are saying the quiet part out loud with increasing frequency.
All of this is accompanied by an accelerating descent into authoritarianism. Most recently, we saw this play out brutally in Portland. Though federal agents have finally left the city, the events of the last two weeks provide a look at the state of “democracy” in America.
Judge Rejects Oregon’s Bid to Stop Federal Agents in Unmarked Cars Arresting Protesters
That descent into authoritarianism is also seen in how shamelessly the Trump administration is breaking the rule of law.
Natalie: In response to the president’s tweet about potentially delaying the election, there was near unanimous condemnation and a universal assertion that the president doesn’t have the power to delay an election. To be clear, federal law prohibits the president from unilaterally moving an election — to do so would require an act of Congress — but when you read pieces like the one below — where the president is openly defying a ruling from a co-equal branch of government — and you wonder why we’d imagine that laws could restrain a fundamentally lawless president.
This article from the LA Times puts the cost of the administration’s recalcitrance into starkly personal terms: Beatriz Basurto watched her older siblings use DACA to cement their status but then, when her time finally came to apply, the administration pulled the rug out from under her. The story is heartbreaking, not just because of the opportunities that elude Beatriz — the privileges citizenship confers on us that we so often take for granted — but also because of the schism that persists in families, due to mixed statuses.
And the Backdrop to All of This Is Climate Change — Or Humanity’s Greatest Self-Destruction
Himani: As if all of this weren’t bad enough, climate change has already and will continue to exacerbate humanity’s propensity for smallness, violence and greed. Last week, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine published a searing look at the climate migration that has already begun and will only accelerate over the next few decades. There’s nothing new in this, but what’s powerful about this reporting is the way they connect some of the greatest and most violent political struggles of our time to the climate change that has been unfolding unchecked.
Of course corruption is at the heart of the climate change in the first place. Greed is what got us into this mess and it’s what keeps us from making any kind of meaningful climate policy. Occasionally, there are small wins to recognize when people have been wronged — occasionally — but the underlying changes that need to happen continue to elude us.
America has long been the greatest contributors to global emissions. Therefore it stands to reason that the direction of US climate policy has a direct effect on global climate change which is affecting every single continent and people the world over. And that’s without even getting into the geopolitics of whether and to what extent the US’s actions on this front influence other political leaders.
That last article is talking specifically about climate change, but so, so much rests on this upcoming election. In the wake of all this despair, the only thing I can hold onto is John Lewis’s parting message for us:
The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.