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A Bright Red Flag for Democracy

Posted: 04 Mar 2018 03:00 AM PST

A week after the fatal shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, some of the high school's surviving students traveled to Tallahassee, Florida, and Washington, D.C., to protest lawmakers who failed to pass gun-control legislation. These teenagers have become passionate advocates for change.

Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, had a memorable explanation for why she and others had to speak out: "Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving," she said. "But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it's time for victims to be the change that we need to see."

Another group is speaking out, too: people who believe the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas was staged, and that students like Gonzalez are actors, not victims. Far-right provocateurs have focused on David Hogg, a 17-year-old student who had the self-possession to interview his classmates while the shootings were taking place. Hogg's composure in interviews, his criticism of President Donald Trump, and the fact that his father is a retired FBI agent have fueled a conspiracy theory that claims Hogg has been paid—by Hillary Clinton, George Soros, or favorite figures among conspiracy theorists—to promote an anti-gun agenda. Supported by media figures like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, the conspiracy theories have received a big boost from YouTube, with its algorithms that push videos targeting Hogg to the top of trending video lists.

It gets stranger. These two groups—the brave students demanding to prevent another tragedy, and those denying their very existence from behind computer screens—have something profound in common.

They're both responding to the dominant condition of our nation today: mistrust.

In the mid-1960s, 77 percent of Americans reported trust in the U.S. government to do the right thing all or most of the time, according to surveys from Gallup and the National Elections Survey. Asked the same question in a Gallup poll late last year, only 18 percent reported trusting the government. This isn't a Trump-specific phenomenon. Trust has been falling in the United States for decades, and it hit comparably low points during the Clinton and Obama presidencies.

It's also not a government-specific phenomenon. Trust in virtually all American institutions is down sharply since the 1960s and 1970s, including people's faith in banks, churches, healthcare, and big business. Our loss of trust in government, in media, and in each other helps explain this peculiar moment, a time when some of us can't believe the government's inability to take action and others can't believe what they're seeing.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are discovering that they can't trust their elected officials to take action on gun control. And why should they? The Columbine massacre occurred in 1999, before any of these children were born. Legislators have had 18 years to ensure that American schools are safe places for students to learn. Instead, students are so familiar with drills to protect themselves from mass shootings that one enterprising high schooler, Justin Rivard, has designed a metal brace that can secure a classroom door from an active shooter who blasts off a lock. Tragically, Rivard's clever hack has a much better chance of being adopted than legislation to institute universal background checks, which 97 percent of Americans support.

Despite having good reason not to trust the political process, the students are doing what we've been taught to do as citizens: tell our legislators what we think, and if they don't listen, demand to be heard. So far, that's not gone especially well. One group of students traveled to Tallahassee to meet with legislators and instead watched 71 Republican legislators block debate on bills to limit high-capacity magazines. A town meeting with legislators, televised by CNN, went little better, as politicians squirmed uncomfortably and failed to answer the blunt questions put forward by students.

Watching the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students engage with their elected leaders is a crash course in understanding how people develop mistrust in representative democracies. The fear is that the experience will quickly teach the students that change is impossible. The hope, instead, is that they will learn that change can occur, but perhaps not through the methods they've been taught to use. While the Florida legislature prioritizes debating the health risks of pornography over considering gun control, online campaigns have convinced airlines, rental-car companies, and banks to cut their ties with the NRA. The uncomfortable lesson may be that corporations are more responsive to customer concerns than lawmakers are to their constituents. This may be good news in the short term for activists, but it should be a bright red flag for anyone concerned for democracy in the long term.

While the students march and petition, the alt-right researches—looking for evidence that the "deep state" has set up "false flag" operations to deceive Americans into demanding gun control. Informed by hoax sites like Infowars and Gateway Pundit, these communities have little trust in government, which they see as blocking and constraining an elected president. They have no trust in mainstream media, which they see as an extension of the Democratic Party. While those promoting the absurdity that David Hogg is a "crisis actor" are on the extremes, very few Americans have deep trust in media. According to a Gallup poll, 27 percent report having high trust in newspapers, 24 percent have high trust in television news, and 16 percent have high trust in news they find on the internet. Some of this mistrust has been manufactured by a president who delights in calling coverage he doesn't like "fake news" and treating the media as the opposition party. Some comes more organically, as mainstream media outlets get less shy about calling out Trump's misstatements, and in the process, sound more partisan and less neutral than they have in previous administrations. And certainly some doubts are fomented by the chaotic nature of the open web, where anyone can self-publish just about anything, for better and for worse.

With such low trust in media, the far right is engaged in the exhausting work of seeking something nefarious behind the news, some sinister machinations that would cause a 17-year-old boy to agitate for gun control after his friends were killed. Some of their allies are working to make the process more exhausting for everyone else. Spurred on by trolls on 4chan, the leader of a tiny white-supremacist group called Republic of Florida told the Anti-Defamation League that the Parkland shooter had trained with its militia. When it was revealed that the Parkland shooter had no ties to Republic of Florida, willingness among some media outlets to ascribe white-nationalist motives to him gave those so inclined more reason to doubt the media's fairness.

Mistrust is expensive. When people worry that the media is being manipulated, it takes work to get to a set of facts we trust, and more work to get to a common set of facts we can discuss or debate. When people worry legislators aren't listening to citizens, but to corporations and lobby groups, they move beyond letters and phone calls to protests and rallies. Two decades ago, the author Frank Fukayama posited that high-trust societies were wealthier than low-trust ones because fiscal transaction costs were lower. As Americans experience an increasingly paralyzed and dysfunctional federal government, it's clear that mistrust is raising the costs of representative democracy.

Mistrust is corrosive. It tends to lead either to paralysis or to polarization. If the students marching on Tallahassee and Washington discover that their passion and anger doesn't lead to change, it's likely that their mistrust of their government will deepen and calcify. Many seasoned gun-control advocates despair that no tragedy will be sufficient to bring lawmakers to their senses. As the British political commentator Dan Hodges observed in a widely shared tweet in 2015, "In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over." The students of Parkland have not yet been paralyzed into inaction by their mistrust, and I pray they never are. But mistrust of an unresponsive government can easily lead to the conclusion that no vote, no phone call, no protest can make change, and so there's no reason to take action.

For others, mistrust leads to the certainty that the other camp is not only mistaken, but in a continual war. Those who see Trump as under attack by the media and the FBI find themselves understanding a senseless slaughter through a partisan lens. Only when you're convinced that society's central institutions are biased against you can you dismiss the experiences of children responding to trauma through protest as a politically motivated attack on your leader and cause. When you find yourself denying the very existence of legitimate opposition to your point of view—when people who disagree with you become paid plants hired by George Soros or the Koch brothers—it's a good indicator that your mistrust has led you through partisanship into alienation.

Mistrust can be weaponized. As the Russian interference with the 2016 elections demonstrated, division and confusion can be as desirable a goal as persuasion. When people begin to distrust what their leaders say, what the media reports, what ultimately constitutes reality, something predictable happens: extremism flourishes. Those less confident in their views withdraw from the public sphere, ceding the space to those certain of their views. This dynamic helps explain the rise of ethno-nationalist leaders in Europe like Putin and Orban and the election of a leader in the U.S. who is pathologically incapable of admitting any doubt, uncertainty, or error.

When the far right raises doubts about David Hogg's authenticity, it drives a wedge deeper between two groups of Americans: those who see themselves as savvy enough to challenge mainstream media's view of reality, and those who cannot believe that the credibility of a 17-year-old shooting victim can be fair game for political debate. That's the goal of weaponized mistrust—to create a world so angry, so confusing, so hard to recognize that we either arm ourselves as combatants against the other side, or withdraw entirely into inaction and passivity.

The good news is that mistrust can be fuel for mobilization. Watching the high-school junior Cameron Kasky demand that Senator Marco Rubio guarantee that he would not take NRA money was a clear demonstration that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting has moved America beyond politics as usual, at least for a moment. Rubio's refusal to take a stand showed just how hard it will be to shake the institutions that have failed all of us on this issue.

As the Parkland students take up the #NeverAgain banner, they're in the good company of other movements that know they need to change how Americans think and act when American leaders refuse to act. #MeToo didn't need to pass new laws against sexual assault—those laws have long been on the books. Instead, it changed the norms around sexual assault from one where women are silent, to one where they are becoming loud and listened to. #BlackLivesMatter focused less on police oversight boards and bodycams than on challenging biases that lead too many Americans to see black people as threats rather than as fellow humans. Both movements offer a blueprint of sorts, though the underlying injustices that motivated them are far from resolved.

The Parkland students will succeed when they realize the Rubios of the world will never help them. They need to build a movement of students and parents who cannot tolerate the idea that education entails moral risk, and who are willing to topple the institutions that continue to accept this tragic reality.

The weaponized mistrust that sends trolls to attack shooting victims may ultimately be responsible for the death of representative democracy. But the mistrust that mobilizes high-school students to lead a movement to protect their own lives might just be what saves it.

On the Language and Culture of Discussing What to Do About Guns

Posted: 04 Mar 2018 03:00 AM PST

Previously in this series:

Two readers with suggestions on talking and thinking about guns.

First, how we talk:

I'm struck by the central role language might be playing in impeding agreement on gun measures. In large part, this revolves around the manner in which words fall upon the ears of gun owners and the effect that has on gaining their (disclosure: our) cooperation (assuming this is truly sought).

Often the way gun control people call for regulation immediately discredits them in the eyes of the gun community or allows for far too-easy caricature.

Some examples are well-worn—for instance, the continued misuse of the term "automatic" instead of "semiautomatic." Failing to make that distinction unfortunately provides an immediate off-ramp when it comes to engaging skeptical gun owners (assuming this is truly sought). Other examples (trivial as they may seem) include "clip" for "magazine", "silencer" for "suppressor", or "AK" vs "AR."

We normally expect those seeking to regulate practices or products to have at least a passing knowledge of the same. If legislative debate confused wheels with tires (in the case of automotive regulation), ailerons with flaps (in the case of aviation), Oxycontin with Oxycodone (in the case of opioids), it would invite unnecessary obstacles to progress.

In more reasonable times or topics, we could get past inexact language either through faith in one another and/or the education that comes through civil exchange. That's not where we are. Rather, what we have is a predominant viewpoint (additional reasonable gun regulations) confronting an intense, single-issue-voting, gun-identitarian minority saturated for decades with the doomsday fear and loathing of the NRA.

Read On »

If America's Democracy Fails, Can Other Ones Survive?

Posted: 04 Mar 2018 02:00 AM PST

Almost everyone who writes about challenges to democracy sooner or later encounters the important work of Yascha Mounk. The list of his accomplishments is a long one: The German-born scholar lectures on political theory at Harvard, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund, and is a nonresident fellow at New America's Political Reform Program. He writes a weekly column for Slate, where he also hosts The Good Fight podcast.

His latest book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, will be published on March 5. I spoke with Mounk earlier this month about his research, the meaning of populism, and the question of how democratic societies cope with immigration, among other things. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.


David Frum: Let's begin with the research that has made you famous, your cross-country survey of declining faith in democracy among younger people in the advanced countries. Could you describe it?

Yascha Mounk: Political scientists describe wealthy, stable countries as "consolidated democracies."

Watching the rise of populist parties across Europe, I was a little skeptical of this idea. So with a colleague, Roberto Stefan Foa, I started to look at whether citizens really were as satisfied with democracy as everyone assumed. And the results were pretty shocking. In the United States, for example, over two-thirds of older Americans believed that it was absolutely essential to live in a democracy; among millennials, less than one-third did. Twenty years ago, one in 16 Americans thought that "army rule" was a good system of government. A few years ago one in six did. And the figures are similarly worrying for a whole range of countries in Western Europe.

Frum: Is it possible that different cohorts understood your question in different ways? That younger people hear something different in the word "democracy" than older people?

Mounk: Perhaps. But some of our questions don't actually use the term "democracy." And over time there has also been a big loss of support for democracy among all age groups. So, for example, people in Germany, in France, in Britain, and also in the United States are much more likely now than 20 years ago to say that they support "a strongman leader who does not have to bother with politicians or elections."

Frum: Do you see a connection between expressions of doubt about democracy and voter behavior? I note that except in France, it is older voters who are most likely to cast ballots for authoritarian populists.

Mounk: It's not only France. The young are more likely to vote for far-right populists in Germany too. And they are much more likely to vote for far-left or ideologically fuzzy populists like Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy. This makes me think that a lot of the anti-system energy among young people simply hasn't been tapped yet in countries like the United States.

Besides, older voters have become much more critical of democracy over time as well. This is not only a story about the young. People aren't just unhappy with particular parties or governments; they're increasingly pissed off at the political system as a whole. That makes them much more open to populists, whose core claim is virtually always that the system is rigged. "The elites don't care about you," populists of all stripes say. "They're in it for themselves. They care more about those people"—who those people are differs from country to country, of course; it can be Muslims in the United States or anybody who's not a Muslim in Turkey—"than they do about you. So what you need to do now is to vote for someone who can truly speak for the people. That's me. I am your voice."

Frum: I'm glad you mention anti-system candidates of the left. What do you make of figures like Bernie Sanders and the U.K.'s Jeremy Corbyn, who reject many "rules of the game," but who are not themselves authoritarian exactly? (Although Corbyn has long kept company with violent extremists, Irish and Islamic, and surrounds himself with associates who condone Stalinism and celebrate Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.)

Mounk: Well, as you imply, I actually think there's a big difference between the two figures you mention. Sanders is a critic of American foreign policy, but he has no sympathy for Iran or Russia. He has not made money of hosting a show on Iranian state TV. So the right U.S. counterpart for Corbyn has always struck me as being Jill Stein rather than Bernie Sanders.

But when you look at straightforward left-populists—whether it's the Chavistas in Venezuela or even Podemos in Spain—I do think there are reasons to worry even though they don't bill themselves as authoritarian. And that's because the populist logic ultimately works the same way on the left as it does on the right: Once you've said that you alone speak for the whole of the people, any form of opposition to you immediately becomes illegitimate. So once you take power, it becomes very tempting to abolish independent institutions like the courts, to suppress critical voices in the press, and to concentrate more and more power in your own hands.

Frum: How do we recognize who is not a populist in your sense of the term? Jimmy Carter ran a "the people versus the powerful" campaign for president in 1976. You presumably don't have him in mind? Or the many British Conservatives who have complained for years about remote unelected elites in Brussels that regulate local behaviors without regard for local wishes?

Mounk: The point of democracy is to empower people to hold elites accountable when they aren't being sufficiently responsive to their interests. So lots of democratic politicians run on saying that elites have become remote and that they plan to serve the forgotten people.

But Carter never painted people who disagreed with him, or who wanted to vote for Gerald Ford, as illegitimate. He never claimed that media organizations who held him to account were traitors. He never said that courts that struck his favored policies down were enemies of the American people. So what defines populists—and makes them dangerous—is the claim that anybody who disagrees with them does not have a legitimate role to play in democratic politics.

Frum: Do you perceive an inflection point in the rise of authoritarian populism? 2010 or 2005? If so, what changed then? Or have pre-existing trends accumulated to the point where they become more noticeable?

Mounk: I wish I did! It would make our life much easier if we could say: Look, this all started around the time of the financial crisis of 2008, so once we've managed to recover the losses from the Great Recession, everything will go back to normal. But when you look at the data in Europe, it's astounding how gradual the rise of populists has been. In 2000, European countries had an average populist vote share of about 8 percent. Now, they are at about 25 percent—and there's no obvious inflection point along the way.

There are two lessons from this. First, populists don't yet have majority support in most countries, but they are now within striking distance of winning elections outright in a good number of them. So the fact that populists have not yet taken over in countries like France isn't a sign that the populist wave has crested; compared to earlier results, populists continue to be on the rise. And second, to understand the rise of populism, we really need to look at factors that are both long-term and cross-national. Any explanation that just talks about what happened in the United States in 2010 or in the Netherlands in 2004 won't be convincing

Frum: Let's dig deeper into the causes of this rise of populism. Two in particular seem to call for extra attention: 1) the increasing remoteness of political authority from local lives, as courts and international organizations displace old-fashioned mass parties; and 2) the disruptive effect of mass immigration from non-developed countries into developed countries. Let's start with the first. Are we discovering that labor unions were crucial to modern democracy?

Mounk: Developed democracies face what I've called a "technocratic dilemma." The world has become much more complicated over the past 50 years: Economic activity now happens at the global scale. Technology has advanced at a very rapid pace. In order to govern effectively, nearly every democracy has thus established more and more technocratic institutions. Experts figure out how to regulate power plants. Bureaucratic agencies pass many more binding rules than parliaments. International organizations try to coordinate the actions of different states in areas in which the whole world needs to work together. But taken together, the effect of all of these developments has been to make many citizens feel as though their vote doesn't really matter. And they have a point: It's really difficult do see, for example, how individual voters can have any meaningful effect on something as vast and complicated as the international response we need to climate change.

Now, some elites want to say that none of this is a problem: So long as these institutions do good work, we shouldn't worry about them. On the other hand, many populists suggest a simplistic solution: Abolish these institutions, return power to the people, everything will be honky-dory. The reason I call this a genuine dilemma is that I don't think either of these views is convincing. We do genuinely need some of these technocratic institutions. But at the same time, they do genuinely disempower the people. This is a fundamental challenge for our political system—and I don't see an easy way out of it.

Frum: Now the second. You write acutely about the difficulty of achieving democracy within multiethnic states. Yet you seem to take for granted that large-scale immigration flows must and will continue into developed societies. If mass immigration from new ethnic groups is so disruptive to democracy, shouldn't democracies accept less of it?

Mounk: Nearly all democracies in the world have been founded as monoethnic and monocultural. Decades of immigration have challenged this self-conception. And while a lot of people are very happy to embrace this transformation, others are very resentful about it.

Canada and the United States are less different from this than one might think. They have of course always been more ethnically diverse. But they also had a strict ethnic hierarchy, which has slowly been challenged over the past decades. Neither in North America nor in Western Europe has there ever been a truly equal, multiethnic democracy. So what we're trying to create right now is a historically unique experiment.

Two convictions flow from this observation. The first is that we need to fight for an inclusive nationalism. This means that we oppose any attempt to identify the nation with a particular ethnic or religious group (as parts of the current U.S. administration consistently do). We must do what we can to protect vulnerable minorities from attacks. But we must also emphasize what we have in common as Americans, rather than scoffing at the need for collective identity or only being willing to celebrate subnational identities like race or religion.

The second conviction gets to the crux of your question. Any genuine liberal democracy will treat all of its citizens the same. But it also lies in the nature of democracies that they get to decide who joins the club. So we need to accept that there can be a legitimate range of opinion about the level of immigration we should have. Decisions about whether, for example, to prioritize family ties or some conception of merit should be made by democratic majorities. We'd need to get into the weeds to see whether we ultimately have the same views on the best kind of immigration policy; but where I suspect we agree is in the broader point that this is a legitimate discussion to have.

Frum: A few moments ago, you offered some comfort: Authoritarian populism may be on the rise, but has not yet taken power in most places. There's one conspicuous exception of course. If the United States succumbs, can others resist?

Mounk: This is really two questions. The first is about the geopolitical consequences of America abandoning its commitment to liberal democracy. Countries in Western Europe often forget to what extent America has protected them from the ill winds of world politics over the past half century. If the United States evolves toward illiberalism, the consequences would be disastrous. European democracies like France and Germany would become increasingly dependent on Russia. Japan and South Korea would become open to influence from China. This will ultimately put a lot of pressure on their domestic as well as their foreign policy.

The second question is even more important though, and it is about what it would tell us about the stability of other supposedly stable democracies if liberal democracy erodes in the United States. Despite all of America's specific problems, it is the oldest democracy in the world. With the exception of Canada, it has the deepest experience with trying to make a multiethnic democracy work. If the forces that are pulling us apart are strong enough to make democracy fail in this country, I fear that similar reasons will also prove strong enough to make democracy fail in most other countries in the world.

Senator James Risch Explains His Warning About 'Biblical' Conflict With North Korea

Posted: 04 Mar 2018 01:50 AM PST

At a recent security conference in Munich, Senator James Risch cautioned that a "very brief" conflict "of biblical proportions" could erupt between the United States and North Korea, leaving in its wake "mass casualties the likes of which the planet has never seen." He then promptly left his stunned audience to catch a flight. This week, back in Washington, D.C., the Idaho Republican explained the warning. He expressed some hope that economic sanctions and other pressure will make North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rethink his pursuit of nuclear weapons. But if that doesn't happen, he suggested, the nuclear threat from North Korea is so exceptional that the Trump administration could feel obligated to embark on an all-out war.

The press reacted to Risch's remarks in Munich with "headlines about Trump wanting to go to war." That, he told me, "was 180 degrees from the message that I was trying to convey. … The headline should have been: 'If Kim Jong Un keeps doing what he's doing, he's gonna cause a war.'"

Risch is a senior member of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees; he just returned from a visit to South Korea as part of Donald Trump's delegation to the Closing Ceremony of the Winter Olympics. He has spoken extensively about North Korea with the president and other top administration officials. The American president doesn't want war, Risch said, but "I firmly believe that he is strongly committed to defending the country. ... Whether you like or dislike President Trump, you have to admit he is a person of strong will."

Journalists missed the significance of his Munich comments in their zeal to take shots at Trump, he said. The outcome of the crisis is "in one person's hands, and that's Kim Jong Un"—who, according to Risch, is now facing a choice between two starkly different paths: "One path will result in the consequence that his regime … stays in power, and he continues as head of that state. The other path ... is going to result in all likelihood in a termination of his regime. It is not the policy of the United States to pursue regime change. We do not want that. But these are his choices, not ours."

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, Risch had suggested that the scenario he had in mind in Munich was how the United States would respond to North Korea's use of a nuclear weapon. But in our conversation he declined to specify a "red line" that, if Kim crossed it, would spark U.S. military action. Risch observed that "the president of the United States has said that he will not allow, tolerate a condition whereby North Korea has the capability of delivering a nuclear weapon by an [intercontinental ballistic missile] to the United States homeland"—a milestone that, according to Trump's CIA director, the North is only months away from reaching. "I'm not at liberty to say what [the] tipping point is," Risch told me, but Trump should be taken at his word.

"The president of the United States has said over and over again that he does not telegraph what and when and how he is going to do something," he continued. "He proved it once in Syria, in response to [President] Assad using chemical weapons against his people, and he proved it a second time in Afghanistan when he delivered" the "mother of all bombs" against ISIS targets. "Both of those times that he pulled the trigger were very surgical, very direct, accomplished exactly what they were supposed to accomplish."

Risch denied, however, that the Trump administration is seriously considering a limited, symbolic "bloody nose" strike on North Korea, as reports have repeatedly indicated in recent months. "I have personally discussed [it] with the people who gave the president the [military] options," he said. (Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Sheldon Whitehouse have said the person who made these assurances was National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster; Risch wouldn't confirm or deny that.) The administration officials "looked me in the eye and said, 'Stop this. There is no such thing as a "bloody nose" strategy. We did not give the president that strategy. He does not have that strategy. It is not the policy of the United States.'" The idea isn't credible, Risch added: "What a dumb thing to do. If you punch somebody in the nose, they're not gonna stop and catch their breath. They're gonna punch back and this thing gets away from you really, really quickly."

But just as remarkable as his dismissal of the "bloody nose" buzz was his message that a nuclear-armed North Korea would pose so grave a risk to the United States that, in order to prevent it, the Trump administration is prepared to wage a war against the Kim regime that experts estimate could kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, and escalate into nuclear warfare. Why the U.S. would enter into such a catastrophic conflict in the absence of an actual or imminent North Korean attack is "an equation that only the president could answer," Risch said. "What you'd be looking at would be on a scale: What are the risks you're running by not doing it?"

North Korea shouldn't be lumped together with nuclear powers like Russia and China that have the capacity to nuke the United States but have been deterred from doing so, Risch argued. "I don't lay awake at night worrying that the United States and Russia are going to get into a fight lobbing nuclear weapons back and forth. … After World War II, when the arms race started, both parties wound up with enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the other party. Both of them realized it, they sat down together, they reached a number of treaties, and they put in place really strict, really clear protocols of telephone calls and communications that will avoid this. Both parties know what the ultimate consequence of [war] is, which is mutual destruction."

In the case of North Korea, "none of that is in place," he noted. "What if somebody miscalculates? What if there is an accident? … That is as much a danger as an intentional act. And there's no protocol in effect for the red phone to ring in the White House and the other one to ring in Pyongyang and say, 'Hey why don't we stop and talk about this?'" Russia and China "know exactly what we're thinking and we know exactly what they're thinking. With the North Koreans, I listen to what they say but you say to yourself, 'Can they possibly be thinking like this? And does [Kim Jong Un] really misperceive who he's dealing with?' This is a country with pea-shooters taking on a country that's got the power and force that America does. Now don't get me wrong: With what they have, they can do tremendous damage right there on the peninsula and for that matter in the whole neighborhood. There's a lot of countries that they can reach."

Isn't the possibility of miscalculation a good argument for talking to the North Koreans, if only to handle crises? "Of course it is," Risch said. "Civilized people would do that, wouldn't they?" But North Korea's "recklessness" and "maliciousness" mean that its leaders are "entirely different than the civilized people we're dealing with who are nuclear powers," he said.

Nor does he see much promise for a diplomatic breakthrough resulting from the Olympics. "I subscribe to the president's theory that talking is good," he said. "In the middle of the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, all of our cell phones went off at the same time to indicate that the South Koreans had announced that the North Koreans were ready to talk. And we were surprised. Now what does that mean? We don't know yet. Our history of talking with the North has not been good. … They made demands before they'd even sit down at the table—they wanted food, they wanted oil and fuel, they wanted release of sanctions, and those were all given to them when the talks started last time. That is not going to happen this time."

Risch hopes the severe sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on North Korea will have an impact on the trajectory of the crisis. Yet here too he has his doubts. "Is [Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign] causing them grief? Yes it's causing them grief," he said. "Has it caused them to change their thinking and their actions? Not yet." The administration just implemented strong measures against ships and shipping companies that are helping North Korea evade restrictions on importing and exporting fuel, he noted. But in terms of sanctions, "we're about at the end of the road as far as the kinds of things we can do."

Russia's Favorite Syrian Warlord

Posted: 03 Mar 2018 10:40 AM PST

BEIRUT—Early on the morning of February 18, Syrian regime forces gathered on a field on the edge of eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held region near Damascus. The sky had just cleared after a weekend of torrential rain that had grounded Russian and Syrian regime warplanes conducting airstrikes on the area. Soon, a stout, bearded man began to speak. Many of the men gathered held up their cellphones to film him as he delivered a message to the rebels in eastern Ghouta: They would "see hell's flames" if they mounted any resistance to his forces. "You will find no one to help you and if you cry for help, you will be succored with water as hot as melting metal," Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan warned them. "At your service my master the Tiger!" shouted one of the men in the crowd, using the intimidating nom de guerre he has acquired over the years.  "If you're not with God then you're with the devil. Be on the side of God so that God will be with you," Hassan said.

Through Syria's civil war, Hassan, a member of the minority Alawite sect like Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, has become something of a celebrity. In the lead-up to Russia's intervention in the Syrian war in the fall of 2015, Hassan was believed to have been fatally injured in battle. But he re-emerged, transformed into a regime hero with a growing fan base and legions of admirers on social media. (Some speculated that the real Tiger was dead and that this man was an imposter drafted by the regime to boost morale after the major defeats it suffered before Russia came to the rescue.)

Unlike the more staid Assad, the flamboyant 48-year-old Hassan has often boasted of his efforts to exterminate regime enemies. This has endeared him to loyalists—and, it seems, to Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. As he delivered his sermon of fire and fury that day on the edge of Ghouta, next to him stood four mysterious-looking soldiers dressed in full combat gear and masks. They appeared to be part of a personal security detail provided by the Russians.

True to Hassan's words, Syrian government forces and their Russian backers unleashed hell on eastern Ghouta shortly after he spoke. Spokespeople for the Russian military in Syria disseminated a stream of messages via official social media accounts identifying Hassan, commander of the so-called "Tiger Forces," as the leader of the land troops closing in on the area. The messages said that Russia was backing Hassan and his men with airstrikes and Russian-supplied T-90 tanks, BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launchers (considered to be among the deadliest in the world) and Tochka ballistic missiles. "We will provide the necessary air support to the forces of Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan … We have real confidence in their ability to accomplish the mission," Alexander Ivanov, the spokesman for Russian forces headquartered at the Hmeimim airbase in western Syrian, wrote on the base's official Facebook page. Later, a pro-Syrian regime website also reported that several Russian army officers were on the ground working with Hassan in a command center in eastern Ghouta.

Since the Russian-backed campaign to retake eastern Ghouta began on February 18, it has killed at least 600 civilians, of whom at least 100 were children. Several thousand people have been wounded. Last weekend, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire across Syria. The ceasefire, negotiated on Moscow's terms, excluded groups that Putin and Assad regarded as terrorists—anyone who has taken up arms to fight the regime. On Monday, Putin ordered a daily five-hour "humanitarian pause" in eastern Ghouta rather than an outright 30-day halt to fighting.  

But Russia's contribution to the destruction in eastern Ghouta has extended beyond providing overwhelming firepower and dictating the terms of surrender. The relentless assault has further revealed Russia's instrumental role in supporting and promoting Hassan, one of Syria's most notorious warlords.

On several occasions, the Russian military has acknowledged training and equipping what it has called "detachments" operating under Hassan's command. These groups, like the Tiger Forces and the 4th and 5th Volunteer Assault Corps, are effectively paramilitary groups attached to regime forces. There are also reports that Russia pays the salaries of these Syrian militia-like formations. Still, Russia has pointed to its support for Hassan and his forces to make two claims: That the Russian army and its local partners defeated the Islamic State in Syria, and that Russian forces, unlike the U.S. military and others, are working with Syria's legitimate government troops rather than militias or mercenaries.

"Units [commanded by] General Suheil al-Hassan accomplished the most important missions in main battles including [the] liberation of Kuweires Military Airbase, Palmyra, Aleppo, Hama, Deir Ezzour, Mayadin and the Euphrates Valley," General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of Russia's armed forces, said last November. "Certainly, all the actions were held under support of the Russian aircraft and other hardware. The ISIS main forces have been defeated." Of course, this telling left out the instrumental role played in these battles by the tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen under the command of Assad's allies Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Long before Hassan became Putin's favored Syrian commander, Syrian and international human rights groups linked him to some of the Assad regime's worst atrocities. At the start of the peaceful anti-regime protests in 2011, Hassan led special operations for the dreaded Air Force Intelligence Directorate. In Damascus, he and his men embedded with Syrian forces to ensure they carried out orders to fire upon and kill protesters, according to witness testimony compiled by Human Rights Watch. Soldiers that disobeyed were shot dead on the spot. Not long after the anti-government demonstrations began, Hassan also oversaw the often deadly torture of protestors. He and his unit were connected to one of the bloodiest massacres against protesters in the southern province of Daraa at the end of April 2011, which resulted in the killing of almost 100 people, according to Human Rights Watch.

As the protests gave way to armed sectarian conflict in late 2011, Hassan was transferred to Hama Air Base in central Syria. Several of those who fought alongside him from 2012 to 2014 told me that as defections from the Syrian army mounted, he partnered with a ragtag force composed of loyalist units in the army and Alawite militias. One Syrian army general with him at the time said Hassan was responsible for at least one of the massacres committed in 2012 in Hama against villages accused of harboring rebels and army defectors. "In Treimseh, Suheil and I just surrounded them and slaughtered about 250," Brigadier General Jamal Younes, commander of the 555th Airborne Regiment of the Syrian army's Fourth Division, told me in 2014, referring to one village they targeted. Hassan's scorched-earth methods spread to neighboring Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Hassan is among the Assad regime figures that foreign-based Syrian lawyers and activists and their Western colleagues would seek to prosecute in a hypothetical war-crimes tribunal. "Suheil al-Hassan is a barbaric figure. He is associated with countless massacres [from] when Bashar feared his regime was going to collapse in 2012 and was thinking of establishing a fallback Alawite rump state," Anwar al-Bounni, a human rights lawyer representing victims of Syrian-regime torture, told me.

The Russian military and state media, meanwhile, seem to have an unlimited appetite for the Tiger's exploits. Press releases and stories have described him as "one of Syria's most renowned military commanders," and have depicted his Tiger Forces as invincible. In the summer of 2017, for instance, Russian Ka-52 helicopters conducted a night-time air raid on an ISIS target in the province of Deir Ezzour, clearing the way for Hassan's Tiger Force to follow with a ground assault. Russia's defense ministry called this "a virtuosic tactical landing operation behind militants' lines," while also noting that Russian military advisers controlled the operation.

Moscow has openly embraced Hassan. Gerasimov awarded him with a sword during a ceremony at Hmeimim for his apparent "valor" in the operation. (A year earlier, he had been given one of the Russian army's highest medals.) Aside from Assad, who holds the military rank of field marshal and is Syria's commander-in-chief, Hassan was the only Syrian military commander to attend a meeting with Putin at Hmeimim base last December to mark the defeat of ISIS. "Your Russian colleagues told me that you and your men fight incisively, courageously and in a results-oriented way," Putin told Hassan in Russian, according to footage broadcast by RT. "I hope this cooperation will allow us to achieve more success going forward." Hassan, seated across from Putin, put his hand on his heart and nodded with gratitude.

How long will Russia continue its assault on eastern Ghouta? The deaths of some two-dozen people in Damascus since February 18 from rebel mortar shells, some of which reportedly landed close to the Russian embassy, appear to be a good enough reason to continue the barrage. Meanwhile, the area's two largest rebel factions, the Turkey-backed Failaq al-Rahman and Saudi Arabia-supported Jaish al-Islam have insisted the ceasefire must allow for humanitarian and medical aid deliveries to the beleaguered zone, in accord with the UN resolution. Both pledged this week to help remove the most extreme insurgents from eastern Ghouta. But Russia and the Assad regime have repeatedly accused them of taking civilians hostage and preventing them from evacuating through designated humanitarian corridors. Sporadic fighting and bombing has continued.

With the battle in eastern Ghouta not yet over, some supporters of Assad, which means lion in Arabic, are already speaking of the Tiger's certain victory at the "gates of the lion's den" in Damascus. The Tiger himself likened Damascus to a bride waiting for him and his men to "dress her in the robe of victory."

How will this end for Hassan? While Moscow may love him, opponents of the Assad regime that I spoke to have speculated that the Tiger, a powerful, popular partner for the Russians within a regime configured to worship one paramount leader,  may have become too successful for his own good. The Assad regime, they said, will likely seek to eliminate him and blame it on the "terrorists"—the fate of many inside the regime who have tried to steal the lion's thunder.

Tanks vs. AK-47s, and Other Aspects of the Gun Debate

Posted: 03 Mar 2018 08:08 PM PST

Previously in this series:

This installment  is  a sample of the range of recent response. Note: many people have written about David French's post explaining why he feels "safer" owning an AR-15. Since I didn't publish that item myself, I don't feel that I should post dissents here. Instead I have forwarded those messages to the editors of the Atlantic's new Letters section.

Moral equivalence and hypocrisy. I've argued over the years that the AR-15 is a weapon designed for the military, which was never meant to be in civilian hands. Dissenting arguments fall into three main categories: slippery slope (any step toward gun regulation is really a step toward confiscation and prohibition); pointlessness (disturbed people will always find a way to kill); and hypocrisy (how can you complain about gun killings, when abortion goes on?). Here's a representative sample from the last category:

Funny how you write about gun violence in America

Iike so many others without a hint of care about the 700,000 (yearly average) deaths of kids in this country caused by abortion. Death is final no matter how it's done, legal or not.

All arguments about gun violence are hypocritical without addressing this sad, yet legal, genocide being accomplished by those liberal progressives who cry the loudest.

No I don't own any automatic or semi-automatic gun and I am not a Republican or Conserative party member. Just a middle of the road American Citizen who thinks the pot should stop calling the kettel black!

Read On »

<i>Three Billboards</i>—Beyond Ebbing, Missouri

Posted: 03 Mar 2018 05:00 AM PST

This story contains plot spoilers for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

In the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, it seems like everyone—the town priest, the kids at the local high school—is trying to convince Mildred Hayes to take her billboards down. The 2017 crime drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri centers around the large red signs that Mildred (Frances McDormand) puts up along the road near her home, in order to call out the town's police chief for not catching the man who raped and killed her daughter, Angela.

The billboards, which read "Raped While Dying"; "And Still No Arrests?"; "How Come, Chief Willoughby?," are extremely divisive in the small Midwestern community. While many in Ebbing empathize with Mildred's grief, they don't support her blaming the police chief (who, viewers later find out, is dying of cancer) in such a public and aggressive manner.

And yet, Mildred keeps her billboards up. They become symbols of her tireless search for justice—and, as my colleague Christopher Orr has written, they're the physical manifestation of "a community struggling to deal with both the horrifying memory of Angela's murder and the difficult reality of Mildred's response to it." The signs, which serve as the film's visual focal point, are striking as a tool of protest—concise, silently confrontational, memorable. And just a few months after the film's release, the billboards have begun to inspire activists around the world and inform a wide range of calls for justice.

Days ahead of the Academy Awards ceremony, where Three Billboards is a major contender for Best Picture, a street-artist called Sabo put up three billboards in Hollywood to call on the Oscar nominees to use their platforms to fight sexual harassment. The signs read: "And the Oscar for biggest pedophile goes to…"; "We all knew and still no arrests."; and "Name names on stage or shut the hell up!"

Three Billboards has resonated outside of Hollywood as well. As the humanitarian situation in Syria continues to worsen, many observers blame the inaction of the international community. To broadcast that message, a coalition of medical and humanitarian organizations put up three red billboards in late February outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City to urge the Security Council to vote for a ceasefire in Syria. The billboards read "500,000 dead in Syria"; "And still no action?"; "How come, Security Council?" (The Security Council has since passed a resolution calling for a  temporary ceasefire.)

Courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights

In recent weeks, there have been many other examples of similar billboards erected to call attention to government or institutional inertia on issues as diverse as gun control, sexual harassment, and press freedom. After a high-school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead earlier this month, an activist group called Avaaz put mobile billboards on trucks and drove them around Miami to call out Florida Senator Marco Rubio for his response to the shooting. They read, "Slaughtered in school"; "And still no gun control?"; "How come, Marco Rubio?"

The Three Billboards approach has been put to use outside of the U.S., too. In London, an activist group named "Justice4Grenfell" plastered three red signs on the side of moving vans to highlight the lack of prosecutions in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people last June and left hundreds of residents homeless. They read, "71 Dead"; "And still no arrests?"; "How Come?"

Perhaps the most noteworthy of all the real-life billboards erected across the world are the ones that were up for the shortest amount of time. In the small European nation of Malta, just over four months ago, the investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered for her work exposing the government's systemic corruption. A self-declared "movement of non-partisan people led by women" called "Occupy Justice Malta" put up three billboards to commemorate the anniversary of Galizia's death. The group was quoted in the Maltese press as saying: "We were inspired by the film [Three Billboards], because with the Maltese government's disregard for the rule of law, living in Malta at the moment is pretty much like living in a mafia movie."

These signs were simple and compelling : "A journalist killed. No Justice": "A country robbed. No Justice"; and "No resignations. No Justice."

Within hours, the billboards were taken down: The Maltese Planning Authorities said the signs violated preexisting removal notices—but, as the local newspaper Times of Malta pointed out, "around 40 illegal billboards around the island remain standing" despite receiving similar notices.

This isn't, of course, the first time on-screen entertainment has influenced real-life activism. In 2014, several students were arrested in Thailand for using the "mockingjay" salute—inspired by the popular dystopian Hunger Games movies—as a sign of protest against the country's military government. After the release of the Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale in 2017, activists wore the show's characteristic crimson robes and white bonnets while marching for women's reproductive rights and gender equality in cities across the U.S.

Edward Walker, an associate professor of sociology at UCLA, has studied how  movies and other cultural products can change perceptions of social issues and influence political outcomes. In a 2015 study, he found that local screenings of the anti-fracking documentary Gasland in a given state spurred anti-fracking mobilizations, which, in turn, affected the likelihood of passing fracking bans in those states. But part of the reason Gasland ignited such large-scale public protests was a striking scene in which homeowners lit their contaminated tap water on fire. During the gas boom, the releases of methane from natural-gas wells and installations was poisoning drinking water across America—and images of burning water from Gasland served as a potent symbol for activists.

Walker explained to me how, in a moment of heightened social consciousness in the U.S. and elsewhere—in the age of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements and of the backlash against the Trump presidency—movies have a critical role to play. "[Films] give people a … vivid image of how social change can be enacted," Walker said, suggesting that both topical documentaries (like Gasland) and narrative movies (like the Hunger Games franchise) can lead to such change.

The question of why some approaches, like the billboards, seem to take hold more than others has to do with the concept of "tactical diffusion." Sarah Soule, a sociology professor at Stanford University, conducted a study in 2013 on the spread of the shantytown-protest technique—students taking over buildings and camping out in symbolic shantytowns—from apartheid South Africa to American college campuses in the mid-1980s. She found that the tactic spread most rapidly within schools with similar institutional structures, endowment levels, and rankings. This means mediums of protest will spread more when people identify with it in a deep, cultural way, as Soule wrote: "Students at colleges and universities similar to one another ... more easily forge collective identities."

In the case of Three Billboards, the central injustice running through the movie is a perceived inaction on the part of the authorities. Similar concerns animated the billboard protests in Malta, Miami, New York, London, and Los Angeles, leading Walker to conclude that the signs are "a vivid, attention-grabbing mechanism that works well for the idea that the authorities are asleep at the wheel."

This new brand of activism hasn't gone unnoticed by the people involved in the movie that inspired it. During her BAFTA acceptance speech, Frances McDormand praised "well-organized act[s] of civil disobedience" and said she was "thrilled that activists all over the world have been inspired" by the film.

In Three Billboards, Mildred brushes off most efforts to get her to take her billboards down, hitting back against both intimidation and violence. But the most moving plea (and the one that ends up being the hardest to ignore) comes from her ex-husband, Charlie, who tells her: "Those billboards aren't gonna bring her back, Mildred." Relatedly, it's worth asking whether using this tactic in real life can prompt meaningful change, with the Syrian crisis or gun-control legislation, beyond stirring the public's emotions. But, then again, perhaps making people feel something is the whole point.

How Kara Walker Recasts Racism’s Bitter Legacy

Posted: 03 Mar 2018 05:00 AM PST

Last year, a white-supremacist rally in defense of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, sparked a national conversation about Confederate monuments and, more broadly, about the ways in which the ugliest moments in American history are memorialized. Years before these shrines to the Confederacy began to topple, the artist Kara Walker was already capturing the traumas that extend from the era of slavery to the present day.

Walker attracted the art world's attention at age 24, after her 1994 installation, "Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart," was featured in the Drawing Center, in SoHo. Three years later, she became one of the youngest MacArthur Fellows. Walker is best known for her interrogations of race, gender, and sexuality. In the years since her debut, she has employed stereotype and caricature to emphasize the brutal ideological traditions of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Using drawing, painting, cut-paper silhouettes, and large-scale installations, she challenges a flawed and distorted understanding of this country's violent racial history.

Her 2015 exhibit, "Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First," which was shown in the Victoria Miro gallery, in London, encapsulated this biting commentary. "I just find it really fascinating when people gouge a narrow channel in their thinking and then just keep [going], as if by gouging further into it, it makes the lie a fact as opposed to a bigger wound," she said in a conversation included in the artist's book that accompanied the show. Among the 39 provocative pencil-and-watercolor drawings exhibited: a fantasized "American Hero" monument to Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina; Confederate notables depicted on Georgia's Stone Mountain alongside smiling Ku Klux Klansmen and a black man burning at the stake; and Martin Luther King Jr.'s burial ground in a pool of blackened water.

By focusing on the myths that undergird these historical narratives, she suggests that the legacies of these troubled eras are much more fraught than they might appear, whether carved into mountainsides or inscribed in textbooks. The civil-rights movement and King (whose tomb is also featured in one of Walker's drawings) often take center stage in discussions about America's moral trajectory on race relations. Fifty years after King's assassination, Walker's art underlines the wounds that remain—and how people today are complicit in perpetuating them.


Artwork selected from Walker's fall 2015 exhibit, "Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First," which originally ran at the Victoria Miro gallery, in London

© Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

STONE MOUNTAIN MASCOT HUNT (2015): The Ku Klux Klan cites Georgia's Stone Mountain as its birthplace, in 1915. The site later became a Confederate monument and depicts three Civil War figures: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Walker lived near the monument as a teenager and references it in a number of drawings.


© Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

DYLAN ROOF MONUMENT (2015)


© Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

BURNING CROSSES DON'T MEAN ANYTHING UNLESS ACCOMPANIED BY A BURNING NIGGER (2015)


© Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

MLK MONUMENT REVISED (2015)  


This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline "Recasting Racism's Bitter Legacy."