Friday, November 13, 2020

Agents sent to harm us

 There is a great deal of speculation these days about the possibility of agents provocateurs, the undercover agents sent to infiltrate social movements by police, sent by ideologues, sent by corporate interests, or by any party opposed to that movement. These agents would not merely spy on groups, they would attempt to destroy them.

How might they do that?

The common understanding of agents provocateurs is that they are sent to promote violence and thus give the police an excuse to crack heads. But that is only one of several functions that such an agent would perform. 

The overarching goal is to neutralize a civil society campaign that wants change, or it wants to protect something--a good law, some policy that favors marginalized identity groups, clean water, etc. There are many ways to attempt that goal, including but not limited to: 

  • provoke violence
  • discredit leaders
  • redirect campaign focus
  • promote internal conflict
  • push irrational views to media in the name of the group
  • influence poor financial management
  • alienate influencers and funders
  • ruin image of coalition
  • commit fraud in the name of the organization
  • create factions that split off
  • start harmful rumors about people or group intentions
  • promote an internal security culture that amplifies paranoia
Of course there are authentic ineffective activists who do all these things too, so it is inappropriate to accuse anyone of being an agent provocateur without absolute proof, but it is helpful to periodically remind everyone in the group that agents provocateurs engage in these actions for a reason--to harm or destroy a movement--and therefore everyone should attempt to avoid these destructive practices. 

Call in your less effective activists, please don't call them out. We need to work to promote the more feminist, nurturing styles of leadership that build an unstoppable mass movement. This is not easy and takes emotional maturity. Tolerate each other's mistakes and our own slips. We can do this but we need to do this together. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

Just give me some truth

 We are witnessing an era when social media has supplanted our normal news for many people, and our natural human tendency to engage in siloes of affinity groups thus amplifies the set of "facts" we tend to receive, and it also tends to deepen our distrust of other points of view. 

For example, I find it hard to accept friend requests from people who espouse hatred of identity groups that have been historically marginalized. Racism turns me off so completely that I choose to ignore friend requests from those whose timeline includes dogwhistle racism. Environmental protection is important to me so I tend to accept friend requests from those who espouse such policies. This often means I am creating a silo for myself in social media that feeds me analysis that confirms my bias against bias, my bias in favor of protecting the environment, etc. 

That silo is fine, frankly, as long as I also get news from a diversity of other sources. I get mainstream stories from credible sources like the Washington Post (which is available to both students and professors for very cheap subscription rates of literally about 18 cents per day), occasional stories from the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Economist, Frontline, and more. I listen to podcasts while I do my daily walk, including some news via comedy by Trevor Noah, but also NPR Politics and Rachel Maddow. This mix can generate news that helps me contextualize what is going on, humanize all sides, and see the validity in whole or in part of views I do not share. I believe millions of Americans do that sort of eclectic information gathering and it helps us make more richly informed decisions. 

Sadly, however, other millions only stick to their silos and this whips them into selective facts, underinformed points of view, and misinformed analysis. It tends to make them more extreme and thus widens the polarization and creates worlds full of "alternative facts," a phrase coined by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway and one that is indicative of the low respect for the truth characterizing Trump and his people. 

Lying to the public is something politicians and their close advisors have done forever. But the rise of fringe journalism that warps the truth (like Fox News or Alec Jones), along with the concomitant expanse of social media as the primary news source for many, has fed into our post-truth polarization. While it is trickier to stay credibly informed these days, the stakes are too high to avoid it if we hope to keep our democracy and avoid massive public violence.

Thursday, August 06, 2020


Gene Sharp called it a self-coup. 

Sharp was arguably the most influential theorist in the field of nonviolent social movement strategy of the 20th century. He and Bruce Jenkins wrote a short 72-page monograph on defeating coups d’√©tat, that is, the seizure of power in a sudden overthrow. It could be one generalissimo tossing out another, or a military grabbing power from an elected leader. 

The self-coup is a special category. It is also known as executive usurpation, the transmogrification of a democracy into a dictatorship by someone who had been duly elected but who was grabbing lifelong power and ending meaningful voting for his office. Hitler was an example, voted in and then did a self-coup. It may be argued that Ferdinand Marcos did something similar in the Philippines by getting elected and then, when it looked as though he might be defeated, declaring martial law for long periods. 

The self-coup is a serious threat to democracy in the United States right now.

Yes, we have a nice Constitution. Yes, we have done presidential elections even in wars from 1812 to 1864 to 1944 to 1968. Never missed one. Yet.

But preparations for the Republican domination-by-the-minority and the Trump Takeover in particular are proceeding apace. Will they succeed?

What have the Republicans been up to?

·       Gerrymandering has shifted power to the Republicans in many states so that, even though they are in an overall minority, they have a slight advantage in many Congressional districts and the gerrymandering lumps overwhelming majorities of Democrats in a few deep blue districts. Indeed, Democrats needed—and got—a supermajority in many states to elect so many to the House in 2018. The Republican-packed Supreme Court ruled that such shenanigans are Just Fine. 

·       They used abjectly dirty tricks to install two far right judges into the Supreme Court, first by denying Obama any chance to nominate a potential Justice—Mitch McConnell unethically delayed hearings until Trump was elected, at which point they shoved through Neil Gorsuch—and then by tampering with the investigative process into the next appointee, Brett Kavanaugh. Court challenges are stacked for Trump when it really counts. Relying on the Supremes to save our democracy is patently ill-advised. 

·       Voter suppression of demographics unlikely to vote Republican are ongoing, from the targeted removal of anyone ever incarcerated to the elimination of all registered voters who have an “improper” address—this often shuts out most or all tribal members who live on reservations that may not have “normal” street addresses, it cuts out people with no permanent address, and can also block people who move frequently. Indeed, says Georgian Stacey Abrams, 

who launched Fair Fight, voter suppression in the 21st century is enormously effective and less visible; she says it “looks like administrative error.” But it is intentional.

·       In areas where voters are perceived to be unlikely to vote Republican, there are often far fewer and far more inconvenient polling sites. When voting machine glitches are added to that problem, voting becomes less and less possible for those populations, as we saw especially sharply in 2020 primaries in Iowa and Georgia.

What if all these lowdown tactics still fail to garner the election Trump doesn’t like? There is a growing fear he will refuse to leave office, conducting his version of the democracy-abrogating self-coup. At that point, what will happen?

If Trump has the loyalty of a significant portion of both the armed agents of the state—e.g., armed forces, police, Border Patrol—plus a significant number of elected officials and bureaucrats, he may start to succeed. 

At that point, civil society either intervenes en masse or does not. We have been warned, frankly, and advised by Timothy Snyder on anticipating and overcoming this disastrous devolution of our democracy.

Sharp and Jenkins warn that sometimes a foreign power may have a hand in this (or, to quote Trump, “Russia! If you are listening...”). 

When we look at cases in Serbia, Chile, the Philippines, and other instances of self-coup, we see the necessity of loyalty shifts or security defections. At this key moment people power either draws the loyalty of the armed agents and government officials or it does not.

In most of these cases the masses of people knew that the election was being stolen because the vote, as they knew from being there, was overwhelmingly not for the sitting ruler, and they decided not to allow it. They rose up in mass nonviolent nonco√∂peration and saved their democracies. 

They did not rise up against the police and military, which was crucial, because if there is one way to adhere the loyalty of armed agents to the self-coup leader, it’s the resolve that forms amongst those armed agents when they are under attack. This is a key component of the success of nonviolent action in many cases, and certainly critical in stopping the self-coup. 

There are many more lessons from such nefarious episodes, but bear in mind that without serious opposition this underhanded and anti-democratic attempt is historically often successful. Without robust citizen involvement, it certainly can happen here. Our democracy is already badly eroded under Trump and his confidence in his ability to grab what he wants is either met by serious nonviolent resistance or he may well pull it off.

Friday, July 03, 2020


We are in another time of the superpatriot, the true believers in obedience to the Commander-in-Chief, to every armed agent of the state, and a zealotry that values the American flag above the lives of dissenters.  
May I take this moment to declare myself a matriot?
I pledge my allegiance to Mother Earth and Her stunning, living diversity of creatures great and small, to her brilliant palette of skin tones and array of physical and mental abilities amongst one encompassing race, humankind. 
I bow to the Earth flag but I don’t value any cloth over any life. 
The Fourth of July is a great time to reflect on our Interdependence, on our duty to our homeland, our home planet, and the generations to come. 
The day is a time to respect protest and resistance, something done quite broadly in colonial America for approximately a decade leading to the Declaration. 
It is a time for more of us to continue and extend the dissent begun by the colonists, and to also dissent from them. 
So yes to celebration, but no to valorizing guns and oppression. 
Yes to corn on the cob, but no to military parades. 
Yes to freedom, but no to oppression. 
Yes to democracy, but no to voter suppression. 
Yes to protection of life, but no to armed occupation of some neighborhoods by police who don’t live there.
Last night about 15 of us spent more than two hours planning for a youth-led July 4 rally and walk to support Black Lives (Also) Matter. There were pastors, police, parents, nonviolent peacekeepers, and high school kids. 
At one point the deputy spoke up about the possible roles of law enforcement. He was clear, gentle, and respectful. 
One of the pastors asked the youths to offer their ideas. 
There were two African American girls, one Latinx girl, and one white girl. Each said, in her own way, that please, police, do not be there. We are afraid of police. We are trusting our nonviolent security team to keep us safe. 
None of them were strident or speechifying, all were respectful, and one quiet-voiced African American girl was even apologetic, saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t help it, I am afraid when I see police.” 
The deputy graciously thanked the girls for their honesty and said, “You are brave.” 
This is a fraught moment in America. It is not time to double-down on flag-waving, dehumanizing, and dividing. If that is patriotism, I most emphatically reject patriotism. 
I offer matriotism as my alternative. We can do this instead of some of the toxic nationalism we see.
We should be loyal, but loyal to all humans and loyal to the clean water, clean air, and healthy, safe environment every girl and boy requires now and forever. Our “Call to Duty” is to preservation and enhancement of the equity and ecological wonder that is their birthright.