Saturday, July 30, 2022

I HAVE A CEMETERY QUESTION

 

Ivana rests "in the rough" at Donald's NJ golf property 
Question: With the burial of Donald Trump’s ex-wife at his golf property in New Jersey, has that property technically become a "cemetery"? Here's why I'm asking:

According to NJ law, "cemetery companies" are tax exempt.

Specifically, “Cemetery company” means any individual, corporation, partnership, association, or other public or private entity which owns, operates, controls, or manages land or places used or dedicated for use for burial of human remains or disposition of cremated human remains, including a crematory located on dedicated cemetery property.

Cemetery companies are prohibited from engaging in any of the following activities:

• Manufacture or sale of vaults, private mausoleums, monuments, markers, or bronze memorials

• Conduct of any funeral home or the business or profession of mortuary science

(I don’t see anything there about golfing).

Exemptions:

The Act relieves cemetery companies from the payment of:

• Real Property Taxes on lands dedicated to cemetery purposes;

• Income Taxes;

• Sales and Use Taxes; Rev. 5/17 Publication ANJ–22 About New Jersey Taxes: Cemeteries, Funerals and NJ Taxes

• Business Taxes; and 

• Inheritance Taxes. 

Cemetery property is exempt from sale for collection of judgments. Cemetery trust funds and trust income are exempt from tax and exempt from sale or seizure for collection of judgments against the cemetery company.

Data collected from the NJ State Division of Taxation.

 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

CAPITULATION

 

With what he may have thought was a harmless and indifferent gesture, US President Joe Biden this past week issued a powerful message not only to Saudi Arabia but also to human rights advocates everywhere: When it comes to the choice between defense of human rights, free speech and democracy or cheap fuel for America’s gas-guzzling SUVs, we’ll take cheap gas.

Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi

There can be little doubt that when Biden had to confront the inevitable photo op with the ruthless Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, it was an embarrassing moment. It looked way too much like what it was—humiliation, desperation, the flailing of a drowning man. 

After all, this was the guy whom Biden had promised in fiery campaign speeches a couple of years ago that he was going to hold to account and shun as “the pariah that he is.”  But with Putin’s war in Ukraine turning the oil market head over heels, and soaring gasoline prices at home fueling nearly double-digit inflation and inversely scuttling the president’s popularity ratings on all fronts, the question Biden probably asked himself was, as the BBC’s veteran worldwide correspondent John Simpson quipped, “Who has a lot of oil? Exactly!”  

While the president would share a warm handshake with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, he made sure that it was clear that MBS only merited a quick fist-bump. One wonders if this was supposed to allay the concerns of the liberals who had voted for him or to have prompted the international community and human rights activists to say, “Ha, see there, fist-bump. I guess Biden showed him!” Because if that was supposed to be the message, it didn’t take. The word that more likely seems to have been the first to come to mind was “capitulation” rather than scorn.

The politically costly fist-bump
In the lead-up to this unfortunate meeting, Biden’s West Wing had indicated he might not meet at all with MBS and would instead only officially meet with the king. But too many foreign affairs experts made it clear that if that was the plan, he might as well stay home, because the cock who currently rules the roost in Saudi Arabia is the crown prince. The king, they pointed out, is a mere figurehead for life, with no real power to decide anything. If you want to talk to the Saudis, you can’t avoid talking to MBS, because Saudi Arabia is a one-man show.

Which is precisely the point about the murder of Saudi Washington Post columnist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi. Nothing of consequence happens in the Saudi regime without the knowledge and complicity of MBS. To believe the official story of the Saudi government that the murder was committed by rogue outliers without the crown prince’s knowledge is to believe in fairytales—especially since the grisly assassination took place within the premises of a Saudi diplomatic mission.

For anyone who might need to refresh their memory regarding this major international incident, here’s a brief summary of the facts. Jamal Khashoggi was a high-profile Saudi dissident, journalist and author, who had long campaigned against the bloody regime, not as a radical, but as a moderate who was willing to advocate gradual democratic improvement without pushing for the overthrow of the Saudi government. Prior to his work as a columnist for the Washington Post’s Middle East Eye section, Khashoggi had served briefly as the editor of Al Watan, a Saudi newspaper that he sought to mold into a platform for progressives seeking respect for human rights and a more democratic opening. He was a particularly strong advocate of equal rights for women in his country. But his trenchant opposition to the regime’s domestic policies caused him to be sacked.

No fist-bump for the Saudi king.

After the Saudi regime banned him from Twitter in 2017 for his criticism of the brutal policies supported by the king and crown prince, Khashoggi had reason to believe that his life was in danger and in September of that year, he left Saudi Arabia for self-imposed exile in the US. While in exile, besides working for the Washington Post, he also became general manager and editor-in-chief at the Al-Arab News Channel, and continued to be a powerful voice for democratic change in his native country.

He was, additionally, a staunch critic of the war on Yemen waged by Saudi Arabia with US backing, which had fostered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Of that war, he once wrote: “The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be. The people of Yemen will be busy fighting poverty, cholera and water scarcity and rebuilding their country. The crown prince must bring an end to the violence…Saudi Arabia's crown prince must restore dignity to his country by ending Yemen's cruel war.”

On October 2, 2018, the fifty-nine-year-old journalist was happily planning his upcoming marriage to then thirty-six-year-old Hatice Cengiz of Turkey. On that date, Khashoggi went to the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul to request some documentation he would need for his marriage. CCTV footage recorded him entering the embassy, but he was never recorded coming out. Later investigation revealed that the journalist had been brutally murdered inside the premises of the diplomatic mission and his body dismembered and removed to another location.

After releasing a series of thin and conflicting stories to try to cover up the heinous crime, the Saudi government eventually admitted that the murder had occurred but has maintained ever since that it was carried out without the crown prince’s involvement or knowledge. This, despite the fact that in 2017, MBS had told another Saudi journalist that Khashoggi's work was tarnishing his image, and that he would go after Khashoggi “with a bullet.”

Less than two months before his murder, Khashoggi wrote, “Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince…is signaling that any open opposition to Saudi domestic policies...is intolerable." As an example of this repressive policy, he pointed to government measures “…as egregious as the punitive arrests of reform-seeking Saudi women.” He wrote that “while MBS is right to free Saudi Arabia from ultra-conservative religious forces, he is wrong to advance a new radicalism that, while seemingly more liberal and appealing to the West, is just as intolerant of dissent.” Khashoggi went on to write: “MBS's rash actions are deepening tensions and undermining the security of the Gulf States and the region as a whole.”

Following careful investigation, the CIA has concluded that there is no doubt that Khashoggi’s assassination was on orders from MBS and that the crown prince had reached across international borders to carry it out, sending a hit squad of more than a dozen agents to murder the journalist in Turkey and make his body disappear. This is consistent with the fact that no few of the regime’s other opponents have simply disappeared without a trace.

Despite President Biden’s initial promises to hold MBS and Saudi Arabia to account for the murder and for the generally ruthless policies of the regime, and in spite of repeated calls from human rights advocates and liberal politicians for the severing of diplomatic ties with the Saudi regime, this past week’s meeting with the crown prince rendered his good intentions moot. Furthermore, that single meeting overshadowed Biden’s entire Middle East tour, eclipsing everything else, which, even without the MBS factor, didn’t go well.

To wit, besides fist-bumping his way into one of the still most burning human rights controversies of today, sparking the outrage of every human rights group at home and abroad that was looking to this administration to restore the basic decency unceremoniously trashed during the Trump presidency, he failed to get anything significant in return. There is no real evidence to suggest that Saudi Arabia has the installed capacity to significantly increase its production, or that, like the rest of the international oil cartel, it would be willing to do anything that might spark a drastic decrease in the price of oil. And the trip rendered no immediate solution to high fuel prices in the rest of the region either.

While Biden managed to give the appearance of inching bitter enemies Saudi Arabia and Israel somewhat closer together, there’s no reason to believe that MBS will risk major conservative opposition at home to appease Washington and Tel Aviv, nor is there any guarantee that the right-wing Netanyahu camp won’t return to power in Israel and undo any progress made. Furthermore, while he did his best to appear tough on Iran, he simultaneously said that his administration still believed that diplomacy was the answer and made clear his commitment to piecing the Iran nuclear accord achieved under the Obama administration back together. While that was sure to please those of us who believe that the way to deal with Iran is by bringing it back into the concert of nations, it is a policy that is unlikely to garner any support whatsoever after the mid-term elections when Democrats may very well lose their tenuous hold on Congress.

To add insult to injury, while he was touring the Middle East, Biden was once again blindsided by West Virginia senator and Democratic outlier Joe Manchin, who again threw the president’s domestic policy plans into utter chaos.

So what could the US president possibly have to gain from capitulating to MBS? The answer is “nothing,” and his advisers should have made him aware of that fact. Because by fist-bumping with a ruthless murderer, the only thing the president has earned is the contempt of the international human rights community and the further erosion of his support among liberal Democrats.


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

FOURTH OF JULY REFLECTIONS

 

I wanted to wish all of my fellow Americans a happy Fourth of July yesterday…but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Couldn’t muster any happiness about what’s happening in my native country today. It’s all just too grim.

Maybe it’s the weather. Here in Patagonia, it’s raining and snowing, cold and dark. It’s more fitting of the state of my nation—once the beacon of democracy, the temple of individual rights—than a sunny day full of brass bands, fireworks, picnics and beer.

But then again, if we give any thought at all to the actual significance of the Fourth of July, we Americans—at least every small-d democrat among us—should have been in mourning yesterday. Not for our origins, which were noble, but for what we’ve lost along the way, and especially what we’ve lost in the last five and a half years.

I would like to say—have wanted to say since January 20, 2020—not to worry. That things can only get better. But that appears to be a fatuous lie. Indeed, in terms of freedom, civil rights and justice, we are abysmally worse off than we were just last month. With the far-right in Congress throwing their full support behind an insurrection that—let’s stop pussyfooting around and call it like it is—sought to overthrow the government of the United States and perpetuate the reign of an autocrat who had clearly lost a free and fair election, and with that self-same autocrat refusing for the first time in US history to leave office peacefully after his election defeat, the Supreme Court was the last bastion standing against this indubitable war on democracy and what used to be known as “The American Way”. But in the last days of June before the Fourth of July recess, that ship clearly sailed as well.

Events in that democratic bloodbath at the Supreme Court in the fateful last days in June included a judicial restructuring that very apparently sought to bolster the ambitions of one segment of the population while debilitating the rights of another. In the process, the power of the Court—like the GOP before it—was unmistakably usurped by the far right, effectively sidelining the normally moderating influence of the chief justice. That institution’s erstwhile principles of respect for settled judicial precedent when it favors individual freedoms, as well as for legally acquired rights, were cavalierly tossed out the window.

This was the intended mission that former President Donald Trump—and the major party that he managed in a few short years to take over through a veritable political reign of terror—hoped the three justices they named to the Court would take up. They haven’t been disappointed. And those newly appointed justices have found an echo for their extreme beliefs in senior Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who was previously a sort of judicial lone wolf in his far-right opinions.

In the latter days of June, and in practically one fell swoop, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down one of the most essential of women’s civil rights—the right to autonomy over their own bodies and their own destiny. This was a hard-fought right that had been federal law in the United States for very nearly a half-century.

With the exception of the right to vote, which women didn’t enjoy for the first time until 1920, and which was a mere first small step in their equal rights struggle that continues today, Roe v Wade was arguably the most consequential decision in favor or women’s rights in the history of the United States. It eschewed the political and religious strictures that had been imposed on women since the nation’s founding (a sort of Christian “sharia law” that precluded a woman’s right to corporeal autonomy), and upheld the right of women to invoke the principle of “my body, my choice.”

Coco Das, an organizer with Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, put it succinctly when she told The Guardian, “This decision not only goes against the will of the people—the majority of people support abortion rights, legal abortion—it goes against modern progress, the progress of history.” Das describe the Supreme Court’s controversial decision to overturn Roe v Wade as being “based on biblical literalism, a fundamentalist Christian fanatical movement.” As I said before, the equivalent of Christian “sharia law”. She added that the Court’s so-called “conservative” majority are “really trying to transform (American) society to one that’s dominated on the basis of white supremacy, male supremacy, Christian supremacy. It’s very dangerous. Without the right to abortion, women can’t be free, and if women aren’t free, nobody’s free.”

But the Court didn’t stop there in its June onslaught in favor of the extreme right. Its far-right justices also ruled in majority decisions against states’ rights when it comes to arms control, against environmental protection, against Native tribal law, and against the founding constitutional principle of separation of Church and State.  

The Court ruled to disallow a 1911 New York state gun law that imposed strict restrictions on carrying firearms outside the home. The decision, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruen, came halfway through a year in which the US has suffered a record three hundred nine mass shooting incidents in which two hundred twenty people have died. In his opinion, echoed by the “conservative” Court majority, Justice Thomas posited that New York laws that recognized people’s right to keep guns in their homes, but restricted the right to carry them freely in the street without good cause violated the “right to bear arms” embodied in the Second Amendment.

The Court also voted in favor of a former high school football coach who was suspended for praying with athletes on the field after games, a practice which imposes religious manifestations on secular public school activities and flies in the face of a sixty-year-old precedent indicating that imposing prayer of any kind on public school children violates their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The justices also rejected a Maine law that prohibited religious schools from drawing tuition aid from public funds. In her dissent against this measure, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “This court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the framers fought to build.” 

And finally, the Court also in June moved against a long-held precedent of tribal law on Native land and curbed the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to pursue major polluters. The rightist majority decided that, from now on, state prosecutors will be able to pursue criminal cases for crimes perpetrated by non-Native persons against Native persons on tribal land—a decision which, according to Cherokee Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr, signifies that “the US Supreme Court (has) ruled against legal precedent and (against) the basic principles of congressional authority and Indian law.” The next day, the Court decided to support litigation brought by West Virginia that insisted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) be restricted in its regulation of planet-heating gasses from the energy industry.

Regarding this last measure, former New York Mayor and current special envoy to the UN Michael Bloomberg said, “The decision to side with polluters over the public will cost American lives and cause an enormous amount of preventable suffering, with the biggest burden falling on low-income communities and communities of color.” 

Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization’s center on Global Health Law made a realistic assessment of the current situation in the US when he said, “We’re absolutely in a constitutional crisis. And our democracy is now one of the most fragile democracies among our peer nations. We haven’t fallen over the cliff—we still abide by the rule of law, more or less, and still have elections, more or less—but the terms of our democracy have really been eviscerated by the Supreme Court.”

This is not a conspiracy theory. The lines of what’s happening have been sharply drawn. Never, since the Civil War, has the United States been so deeply divided, or so in danger of democratic dissolution. To my mind, then, this year’s Fourth of July was the saddest in all of my seventy-two years. I’m fervently hoping that better, more democratic times lie ahead, but I won’t hold my breath while I wait.      

Monday, June 27, 2022

THE LONG TAIL OF THE DECISION TO REVERSE ROE VERSUS WADE

 If there was one thing we learned in the first stage of the Trump Era, it was that no matter how bad things got, they could only get worse. We were seeing things happen that would have been unthinkable previously, and none of them were good. They all tended toward a concerted assault on freedom and democracy. We even witnessed something that we, and most other people around the world, would have thought an utter impossibility in the United States of America: a serious attempt to foster a violent overthrow of the prevailing order and to install an autocratic, single-party regime in power.

The other thing we learned in the first stage of the Trump Era was that there is a second stage. Although the majority of Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief when the democratic transfer of power actually took place—after being unable to believe our own eyes and ears when it seemed that it wouldn’t—that relief has proven a false friend. There has been no return to normalcy, no prosecution of the real perpetrators of the almost coup, no vindication of those who literally risked everything to re-establish democratic order. On the contrary, the offending parties are bolder than ever, are defying legal processes and are counting on again taking over power, while changing voting laws, districts and procedures (and, in the process, violating hard-won minority voting rights) in any way they can to ensure that they do.

Perhaps the biggest sigh of relief that true democrats breathed was when, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, it became clear that, finding no accomplices for his patently false accusations of election fraud amid more than sixty federal judges, a number of whom he had appointed to the court, a defeated but implacable Donald Trump planned to use the Supreme Court—which he had packed with three ultra-conservative justices—to seek to legitimize his phony fraud claims. Our relief came when none of the Trump appointees agreed to hear voter fraud cases brought to the Court by Trump surrogates including, prominently, attorney Sidney Powell. The only dissenting opinion in the Court regarding hearing any of the cases that Trump World sought to bring before it was that of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas’s wife Ginni has since been outed as a diehard Trump supporter who may well have played an important role in propagating the so-called Big Lie and in other efforts to overturn the legitimate presidential election results.

Once again, however, we were falsely lulled into believing that the checks and balances were working, and that, even when the Republican side of Congress was packed with coup-mongers, the Supreme Court would still prevail in protecting the inherent rights of American citizens against violation by a far-right autocratic conspiracy. Nevertheless, if those attempts at undermining the election rights of Americans were too blatant for the Court to abide, we are now seeing that the far-right onslaught is continuing in not much subtler ways.

Kavanaugh, Coney Barrett, Thomas and Alito
The first open manifestation of this agenda took shape this past week when the conservative majority of justices struck down a half-century old SCOTUS decision (Roe v Wade) that basically determined that it was unconstitutional to deny women the right to an abortion, and thus, the right to the pursuit of their own destiny and to exercise control over their own bodies. Among the five assenting opinions were those of the three Trump appointees. While this may come as no surprise, it is worth noting—as have no few liberal members of Congress and even a few conservatives—that during their congressional confirmation hearings, all three testified under oath that they viewed Roe v Wade as a “settled precedent” and thus, the law of the land.

In constitutional law, settled precedents are, as the name suggests, questions of law that have been settled once and for all. In the case of Roe v Wade, what that meant—should anyone be in doubt—was that, in the US, abortion was a constitutionally guaranteed women’s right, a fact that coincides with international human rights standards. Authoritative interpretations of international human rights law have long established that denying women and girls access to abortion is a form of discrimination and jeopardizes an entire range of human rights. United Nations human rights treaty bodies regularly call on governments to decriminalize abortion in all cases and to ensure access to safe, legal abortion in at least certain circumstances—rape, incest, pregnancy in minors and pregnancies that jeopardize the health and welfare of the potential mother.

No matter how you look at it, the action taken to strike down a substantive legal precedent that has empowered and protected a woman’s right to autonomy over her life and body is invasive and difficult to justify. In the face of opposing opinions that are more dogma-based than practical, the Supreme Court could have just as easily allowed the settled precedent to stand as to reverse it. That is to say, the Court has gone out of its way to overturn a decision supporting a human and civil right based largely on the subjective beliefs of a minority portion of society.

Indeed, nationwide polls have shown that more than eighty percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal at least under certain circumstances—incest, rape, etc. And the vast majority believe that it is a right that the state should protect rather than interfere in.

Polls also indicate that only a little more than a third of the country wanted to see Roe v Wade overturned—not surprisingly that proportion is about equal to the segment of society that currently supports Trump World and the Big Lie. Coincidence? Probably not. Meanwhile, a full two-thirds of those polled have consistently said that Roe v Wade should stand.

More revealing still was one poll that indicated that more than sixty percent of Republican women surveyed believed that abortion was a matter between a woman and her doctor in which government should have no role. So, on whose behalf was the Court deciding to strip women of a right guaranteed by a long-settled precedent? The answer is, a subjective, non-secular minority—likely made up to a much larger extent by men than by women (who are now more vulnerable to discrimination than before)—that is seeking to impose its self-righteous authoritarian principles on the whole of the population in detriment to majoritarian democratic society.

There is a ripple effect in breaking with long-held principles. If one person’s rights can be legally violated, then all people’s rights are placed at risk. So the Court’s decision has also debilitated the judicial security of other sectors of American society. While Justice Alito, who wrote the conservative majority opinion, hastens to say that "we emphasize that our decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right,” and that, “nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion,” this would appear to be a personal opinion or wishful thinking with no real legal foot to stand on.

Thomas

Indeed, in a separate concurrence that he wrote to accompany his sign-off on the quashing of Roe v Wade, Justice Thomas gave his own far-right view, saying “I write separately to emphasize a second, more fundamental reason why there is no abortion guarantee lurking in the Due Process Clause. As I have previously explained, ‘substantive due process’ is an oxymoron that ‘lack[s] any basis in the Constitution.’” According to Thomas, substantive due process (i.e., rights granted by court decision rather than directly by the Constitution) has to do with the Constitution’s guarantee of due process before someone is denied the right to life, liberty or property. But he opines that it has no bearing on what those rights actually encompass. Thomas says that since the Due Process Clause “does not secure any substantive rights,” including a right to abortion, then the Supreme Court should “reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents.”

Other writing by Thomas on constitutional law suggests that he favors an enormous departure from how the SCOTUS has traditionally approached the right to due process—a legal tradition that goes back one hundred fifty years. In keeping with that historical approach, the Court had interpreted the basic rights granted by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to protect substantive rights granted by legal precedent. In that way, the US legal system has granted an ever-growing list of liberties that we citizens enjoy, rather than seeking interpretations of the Constitution that strip citizens of legally acquired rights, as the reversal of Roe v Wade does.

Now that the Court has set an entirely new precedent for removing rather than protecting rights granted by law, Thomas has made it clear that he wants to see all such due process rulings reviewed. And he has specifically—despite Alito’s assurances that this is a one-shot deal—indicated that such a review should first focus on Griswold v Connecticut, 1965 (governing the general right to privacy and the specific right of married couples to use contraception), Lawrence v Texas, 2003 (decriminalizing intimate relations between persons of the same sex), and Obergefell v Hodges, 2015 (legalizing same-sex marriage).

Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan
If Obergefell were thrown out, perhaps the most significant human right acquired in the twenty-first century (the right to love whom you wish) would be torn from the law books, which could in turn re-criminalize same-sex relations altogether (Lawrence v Texas). The Court could further invade American bedrooms by banning such preventive contraception methods as IUDs and morning-after pills. It’s not hard to imagine further progressions to anything that “interrupts pregnancy”, such as vasectomy for males or tubal ligation for females.

In their dissenting arguments, Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan addressed this issue head-on, saying, "Either the mass of the majority's opinion is hypocrisy, or additional constitutional rights are under threat. It is one or the other…" They added, "We fervently hope that does not happen because of today's decision…But we cannot understand how anyone can be confident that today's opinion will be the last of its kind." 

The departure from a healthy legal tradition that this decision signifies appears to also have opened a veritable schism in the Court, one that Chief Justice Roberts’ usually moderating influence has been unable to span. Indeed, last week’s decision seems to signal that Roberts has lost control of the court, with Justice Thomas riding on the cusp of an extreme right turn in which his influence as a senior justice is added to the willing cooperation of the three Trump appointees (Kavanaugh, Coney Barrett and Gorsuch) and to the acquiescence of Alito.

Chief Justice John Roberts

In the controversial majority opinion, Alito wrote that abortion was not mentioned as a right in the Constitution as such, nor was the right to privacy. Incredibly, this last has not been stressed by the media, but the idea, according to the Court, that we have no constitutional or precedential right to privacy should come as a shock to Americans as a whole and should be a source of genuine outrage.

In their minority opinion, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan noted that since the framers of the Constitution were all men, “perhaps (it is) not so surprising that the ratifiers were not perfectly attuned to the importance of reproductive rights for women's liberty…" More specifically, the dissenting justices stated: "When the majority says that we must read our foundational charter as viewed at the time of ratification (except that we may also check it against the Dark Ages), it consigns women to second-class citizenship."

The dissenting opinion adds that the court's ruling discards a balance set by past abortion decisions. "It says that from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of." 

It would be difficult not to characterize last week’s Supreme Court decision as blatantly political rather than judicial. There are clear indicators that support this. First and foremost is the fact that this sort of decision is unprecedented in the highest court in the land. Although extremely rare, it’s not that the Supreme Court has never reversed a former decision. But the fact is that when this has happened in the past, it has consistently been in the interest of granting ever-greater freedom to Americans and ever-growing autonomy in the face of authoritarian advances by government.

This is a glaring exception to that rule. This is the power of the court being used to suppress a right and freedom that citizens had already won. It’s clearly a far-right revisionist attempt to turn back the hands of time to a more repressive era and to undo one of the major victories of the battle for broader women’s rights. The question now is, which other legally acquired rights will follow as the “evangelical” far-right continues its implacable assault on freedom and democracy.         

 

Saturday, March 12, 2022

APPEASEMENT - HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF IN UKRAINE

 

The tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine at the moment is the consequence of the kind of ruthless, murderous, criminal behavior that the world—shocked though everyone seems to be—should by now have come to expect from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. It is a repetition of the kind of unprovoked invasion and scorched earth tactics that he has commanded during his twenty-two-year reign in places like Chechnya and Syria. And it mirrors the same lack of concern over geopolitical consequences and humanitarian considerations that Putin demonstrated nearly a decade and a half ago in Georgia, where he launched the first European war of the twenty-first century.

But leaving aside the similarities between the ruthlessness that Putin has exhibited in Ukraine and those he has employed in earlier armed interventions, there are also historical similarities between how the world is reacting to this latest naked aggression in Europe by the Putin regime, and the earlier policy of appeasement that permitted unfettered expansion by the armies of the most undisputedly emblematic dictator of the modern era.

Since the two world wars fought in the twentieth century, “appeasement” has become a technical term for any diplomatic policy that is based on making concessions to an aggressive power in order to avoid armed conflict. The term’s most iconic historical application has been as a means of describing the diplomatic policies of the then all-powerful British Empire in dealing with the rapid rise of fascism in Germany and Italy and the brutal expansionist doctrines instituted by both nations—but particularly by Nazi Germany—in the run-up to World War II.

The scapegoat for the appeasement shown toward German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime has traditionally been British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who was heading the British government when Nazi Germany’s aggression in Europe could no longer be ignored and spilled over into the start of World War II. But truth be told, previous British prime ministers, including Ramsay McDonald and Stanley Baldwin, had preceded Chamberlain in their hands-off approach to the brutal rise and aggression of both European dictators, embracing appeasement even as both Hitler and Mussolini consolidated their power in Europe in the period between World War I and World War II.

In all fairness, those were different times, the nineteen-twenties and thirties, when the world didn’t yet have the historical context of World War II to look back on. World War I was still being thought of as the “war to end all wars” and as “the Great War”, and most people at that time couldn’t have imagined that Germany’s European aggression would once again spark a worldwide conflict that would prove far more deadly and horrific than the first one. Appeasement, at that time, was not seen as “backing down” in the face of naked aggression, but rather as a policy aimed at preserving the peace that had cost all of Europe such tremendous sacrifice during the First World War.

Appeasement was also seen as the price Europe was paying for the exaggerated and highly vindictive sanctions and contemptuous treatment to which the Allies had subjected Germany following the Great War. There was no more outspoken critic of those sanctions than renowned British economist John Maynard Keynes,

John Maynard Keynes
whose book, The Economic Consequences of Peace, published in 1919, was to become a worldwide bestseller. In that book and at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, where he was the British Treasury delegate, Keynes argued that applying a “Carthaginian peace” with the purpose of further crushing an already defeated Germany would lead to new consequences for European peace in the future. He advocated not imposing crippling reparation payments that would impoverish the German people and lay waste to the country’s economy, or at least limiting those reparations to no more than two billion pounds.

Keynes’ advice fell on deaf ears among the Allies in their drafting of the Treaty of Versailles and other associated treaties. And the terrific hardships that the people of Germany suffered in the post-World War I years are historically cited as the main social and humanitarian catalyst that permitted Hitler to become the most powerful man in Germany and the country’s undisputed Fuhrer.

As Great Britain and the US began, during the late nineteen-twenties, to visualize the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles, appeasement commenced to be viewed as the most desirable way to avoid escalating new hostilities between Germany—allied with fascist Italy—and the rest of Europe. Appeasement garnered powerful support among the British upper classes, including the House of Lords, British royalty, and big business, at the time headquartered in the City of London. Conservative media, such as the BBC and The London Times, were also supportive of appeasement as a tool of peace.

The left and the lower and middle-class public at large were, however, far less convinced of the wisdom of permitting Nazi Germany to aggressively expand without drawing a line in the sand. As Hitler advanced beyond German borders, much of the liberal press and popular public opinion decried the former Allied powers’ increasing failure to contain Hitler and drive Nazi Germany back, Prime Minister Chamberlain could think of nothing better to do than to impose censorship on the liberal press, meet with Hitler in Munich and then declare himself the architect of “peace in our time”.

Much in the way that Putin is today seeing the desire of the West to maintain world peace and not get into a shooting war with him as acquiescence that he can take advantage of in order to prosecute his expansionist policies, Hitler seized the opportunity provided by appeasement to annex Austria, parts of Czechoslovakia, Bohemia and Moravia, before invading Poland, which finally became a bridge too far, and sparked the start of World War II.

Historians remain divided on the issue of appeasement, however, with one school of thought positing that the policy of appeasement was precisely what permitted Nazi Germany to become so powerful and to gain such a European foothold while the other school of thought is that in the run-up to the war, Hitler’s Germany was already so powerful that early engagement might have permitted him to win the conflict, while appeasement gave Europe time to better prepare for what was, in the end, an unavoidable conflagration.

Like Hitler in Germany following the Treaty of Versailles, Putin built his popular strength as a dictator on the rubble of the fallen Soviet Union. As a ranking intelligence officer in the former KGB, Putin worked closely with former head of state Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first freely elected president following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and managed to become Yeltsin’s protégé. His reputation as a strongman and eminence gris behind Yeltsin placed him first in the line of succession when Yeltsin, in ill-health and highly unpopular after a crippling recession in Russia that some economists have compared to the Great Depression in the US and Europe, resigned from office in 1999. In exchange, one of Putin’s first acts was to provide immunity from prosecution to Yeltsin, who was facing possible charges of corruption and dereliction of duty.

If Yeltsin had tried unsuccessfully to convert Russia from a seventy-five-year-old communist regime to a free market economy overnight, Putin took a more pragmatic approach, taking advantage of the more open market to position himself at the forefront of a highly lucrative oligarchy that helped him consolidate his power and made him, as well as his cronies, a very wealthy man into the bargain. Although Yeltsin had considered the Soviet era over and done with, if anyone was paying attention, it was easy to see that, despite his taste for capitalism, Putin was nostalgic for the enormous power that the Soviet Union had wielded on the world stage, and which had waned to only a shadow of its former self under the post-Berlin Wall Russian Federation. In this regard, cavalierly relegating the two world wars to a position of secondary importance, Putin once said that the fall of the Soviet Union had been, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

He also took clever advantage of the so-called “glasnost” policy first introduced by his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, which actively sought ever-closer ties with the West. He established strong trade ties with Western Europe and the US and succeeded in making some of the most powerful countries in Western Europe—most notably Germany—largely dependent on Russian oil and gas, the Federation’s main export.

He was at first seen in the West, then, as the new face of Russian democracy and capitalism and gained “most favored nation” trade status with Western nations including the United States—a status that, incredibly, even as he lays waste to Western ally Ukraine, he continues to enjoy, and it is only now that the US and Western Europe are reluctantly considering revoking it. It wasn’t until he was certain that he was in the best position possible to ensure that any Western moves against him would not come without injury to Western economies that he began to reveal who he really was—a ruthless, anti-democratic dictator with an agenda aimed at rebuilding the Russian Federation to the level of power once wielded by the Soviets, but without the all-pervading communist Politburo to hamper him.

Establishing a political partnership with Dmitry Medvedev in which they basically passed the offices of prime minister and president back and forth between them for nearly two decades—a “tandemocracy” as international journalists dubbed it—Putin was clearly always the strong man and Medvedev his shill. Two years ago, Putin decided that he had consolidated sufficient autocratic power to dispense with this farse and pushed Medvedev, who has since been demoted to deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, to resign. Medvedev did so, saying that he was leaving office to permit Putin to introduce constitutional changes—obviously designed to further entrench him in power permanently.

"Strategic target" - a Ukrainian kindergarten
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is utterly unprovoked and brutal. His main goal in doing so is to prevent Ukraine, as an independent sovereign nation, from seeking membership in NATO and the European Union and thus from becoming a basically Western country. A large country of more than forty million people with valuable resources, Ukraine was one of the many Eastern European nations dominated by the Soviet Union from World War II until the end of the cold war, when, like other former satellites of the USSR, Ukraine declared its independence from Moscow.

As of the start of his reign in 1999, however, Putin set to the task of re-introducing Russian domination by infiltrating Ukrainian politics and eventually installing a puppet government in Kyiv that was loyal to Moscow and beholden to Putin. In 2013, mass protests erupted in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, the main purpose of which was to seek closer ties with the West, and particularly with the European Union. Although opposed by the ethnic-Russian minority—mostly centered in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea—this movement became a full-fledged civil uprising known as the Revolution of Dignity, in which at least ninety-eight people were killed, a hundred went missing and some fifteen thousand were injured. In 2014, the protests boiled over into what was essentially a popular coup d’état, as a result of which Putin’s surrogate Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych was removed from power and fled to Moscow.

Putin is using thermobaric bombs that crush the 
lungs of anyone within their killing range.

New—this time free—elections were called, and Petro Poroshenko won by more than fifty percent of the votes, running on a pro-European Union platform. Since then, Putin has actively and violently moved to retake Ukraine by force, first through the direct annexation of Crimea and by providing material and military support to pro-Russian insurgencies in Eastern Ukraine, and now, with the strengthening of pro-Western overtures under the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, by means of the full-scale invasion and destruction of the country as a whole.

The excuse of NATO for not doing more to militarily help the Ukrainians—among other things, at least establishing a no-fly zone so that cities in that country don’t have to contend with Russian air support for its bloody invasion—is that Ukraine isn’t a NATO country. But it’s not for lack of trying on the part of Kyiv. Since once and for all declaring its independence from Moscow, the main thrust of Ukraine’s foreign policy has been to be accepted into the West.

A Ukrainian school hit by Russian cluster bombs.
Clearly, Ukraine would be a positive addition to the West. It is the second-largest country in Europe by area (after Russia). Its population has free access to excellent education. Full secondary school is compulsory, and the country has a literacy rate of about ninety-nine percent, compared to the US with only an eighty-eight percent literacy level. Higher education is free with admissions being provided on a competitive basis. The country’s Lviv University was established in 1616, and the rest of Ukraine’s major cities also host centuries-old institutions of higher learning—a total of nearly one hundred fifty, with a student population of eight hundred fifty thousand.

The country boasts significant natural resources, including lithium, natural gas, kaolin, timber, and an abundance of arable land with a temperate climate that permits a long growing season—even if in certain regions it is vulnerable to environmental issues such as inadequate potable water, air and water pollution, and radioactive contamination in the northeast due to the Chernobyl atomic reactor disaster that took place in 1986, while Ukraine was still dominated by the USSR.

A bombed out apartment building
Ukraine has a score of major industries including power-generation, fuel, ferrous and non-ferrous mining, chemical and petrochemical production, natural gas, machine-building, metallurgy, forestry, woodworking, wood pulp and paper production, construction materials, and food production, among others. The country also has a massive high-tech industrial base in such areas as electronics, arms production and aerospace. 

Unfortunately, its economic performance fails to reflect its very real potential since it has always been subject to the vicissitudes of the Russian economy or has been punished by Russia for seeking its independence, a problem that Western Europe and the US have failed to systematically offset. Add to this the fact that, in just three weeks, Russia is estimated to have destroyed a hundred billion dollars in Ukrainian economic assets—or a little less than two-thirds of the GDP—and Ukraine is currently the poorest nation in Europe.

So why hasn’t the EU done more to embrace Ukraine and make it a progressive Western emerging economy, since the country is not only willing but eager to do just that? Again, the answer is appeasement. It is the West caving to Putin’s refusal to allow a sovereign nation to exercise self-determination. Had the West moved in 2014 to bring Ukraine into the European Union, and more importantly, into NATO, it would have taken a much bigger Russian commitment to war than the one it is now making by ruthlessly invading Ukrainian territory.

While it may be a laudable goal to try and avoid Western armed conflict with one of the world’s two most advanced nuclear powers—especially considering that it is someone as ruthless and brutal as Putin who currently has his hand on the Russian nuclear trigger—as happened with Hitler before World War II, appeasement very likely will prove to be a policy of postponement rather than of avoidance in facing down the Russian dictator. Seeing Putin’s performance to date, it is very hard to imagine that following NATO appeasement in Ukraine, he will not want to test the Western alliance’s resolve in acting on its all-for-one-and-one-for all Western defense policy.

Russia with a defeated Ukraine would pose an immediate threat to Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, and, thanks to its alliance with Belarus, Lithuania. Poland would also be immediately vulnerable, as Putin sought to make good on his dream of returning to the past glory of the powerful Soviet Union.

The choices are clear: How NATO in general and the US in particular react to further Russian expansion will almost certainly either lead to a NATO-Russian shooting war, or it will lead to the nullification of NATO as a viable body for the protection of Western security and to the severe erosion of world security as a whole.

Meanwhile, Ukraine remains the sacrificial lamb in a still cold war between East and West. Putin is determined to use unadulterated state-terrorist tactics to bring Ukraine to its knees, while the West appears to be content to stand by with its arms folded in the hope that Putin will shoot himself out in that country and perhaps not then push on to attack others. 

The price of both opposing strategies is tragic. Ukraine, in just three weeks, has suffered indiscriminate bombing in sixteen of its twenty-five regions. As in Syria and Chechnya in the past, Putin’s war isn’t nearly as much on the Ukrainian military as it is on the Ukrainian people. His bombs have repeatedly destroyed apartment blocks, food and water supplies, heating facilities, stores and shops, markets, schools, churches, and, at last count, at least twenty-four hospitals. His attack on that country is the largest in any European country since World War II, already generating two and a half million refugees, predominately the elderly, women and children. In some locations, like the city of Mariupol, it has given rise to unprecedented humanitarian crises. Also in Mariupol, in just three days of Putin’s siege, at least one thousand three hundred civilians were slaughtered, and Ukrainian officials were forced to start creating mass graves to handle the war dead.

In short, the valiant people of Ukraine—who only sought to live in peace and democracy—and their courageous president are being sacrificed as pawns in the latest East-West power struggle, constituting the most heart-breaking human tragedy in Europe since the end of World War II.