The COVID-19 pandemic has come at a critical historical moment. For the last two decades or so—since the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist rule in Eastern Europe—we have seen a growing erosion of liberal democracy in the West.
The reasons for this are complex and related. The disappearance of an alternative and competing political-ideological system has accelerated the accumulation of wealth and political power in ever narrower circles. This has greatly undermined the middle class, which feels, rightly, that it has been left behind. And younger generations have grown angry that, with the promise of social mobility diminishing, they will never be able to advance to the same degree as their parents.
The accumulation of wealth and power in a few hands has led to increasingly uncontrolled corruption, both economic and political. The entire social democratic system in Western Europe and the United States has come under growing strain, partly for demographic reasons (especially the aging of the population), but also because governments on both continents (France, Italy, the UK, the US, etc.) as well as in Israel, have opted to show ever less generosity toward society’s weaker elements. In the pandemic, this weakening can now be seen in the hollowed-out public health system throughout these countries.
These gradual changes in the socioeconomic infrastructure—to borrow Marxist terms—eventually came to be reflected in the cultural and political supra-structure. The resulting politics of resentment—strongly reminiscent of what has been called “the politics of cultural despair” on the eve of 1914 and during the interwar period—have given rise to populism and authoritarianism, the quest for a “strong man,” and disgust with elites that have benefited from globalization.
These changes, in turn, have produced a new type of politics—combining elements of populism and fascism for which we still have no name. We have seen such politics in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, Italy, France, potentially soon in Germany, and perhaps most importantly in the U.S.
How will the virus shift this new politics? My fear is that COVID-19 will deepen the trends that preceded it, making things much worse.
While the virus doesn’t discriminate between the rich and the poor, the affluent, with better access to health and medications, can protect themselves better. The main victims of the virus—as has always been the case in plagues (see the Black Death)—will be those of lesser means. And the disease will increase its spread precisely because the poor, the homeless, prison inmates, and low-wage workers won’t be able to shield themselves from it.
With the disease’s spread, on top of rising poverty and homelessness, will come the realization that, within the current socioeconomic structure, some lives are worth much less than others. And that gap in how we price lives will deepen, with virus-inspired unemployment and social dislocation on a scale not so different from the 1930s.
Division is based on fear: fear of those who are different, fear of the unknown, fear of disorder and destitution. These were the tools of fascism in the previous century. COVID-19, coming as it does at a time of so many other changes, offers a stage for those who practice the politics of division to do their worst.
To be sure, profound crises such as the current one can lead to reform and progress. The recognition of widespread vulnerability to biological and environmental catastrophes opens the door to major changes in the ways we organize societies. Perhaps new models will address how neglect of huge swaths of populations, or critical sectors like public health, threatens us all.
But any such changes would come in the long run. Right now, mass populations, unemployed and unable to ensure their own health, may see innovations and technologies as threats rather than cures. That fearful mindset is why this crisis may lead to the triumph of the demagogues and authoritarians.
This is a moment for those who can cheat and lie their way through everything, who can claim to be the “strong men” needed to take the helm at this dark hour. There are also opportunities in this moment for powerful economic interests to accumulate even more wealth in the short-term—no matter the catastrophic long-term consequences.
Perhaps this moment may demonstrate to the world that the current Chinese system is better geared to the challenges of the present and the future than the Western model.
That does not mean that China will become the preferred political model for the West. But we may come to resemble each other, if the West experiences a rise in the authoritarianism, xenophobia, nationalism, and repression that are all too present in China.
There is no clear historical parallel, or established model, for the sort of governance that lies ahead. We are likely to experience something quite new and scary.
To avoid the worst scenarios, democracies need to recognize that they are based on the principle that sovereignty emanates from the people, not from the leaders they elect and the bureaucracies that run the system. People themselves must assert their power. Generally, in democracies, that power is expressed through elections, but because of state’s growing ability to manipulate elections, people must begin to assert themselves daily in the public sphere. People are going to have to rise up and prepare the nations for the election of a new set of leaders—women and men who will be responsible to the people and not to the corporations, the rich and the powerful.
What we can see clearly now is a generation of leaders who are using the old Roman principle of “divide and rule,” to sow division amongst and between nations. The politics of division is about turning people against each other: white against black, majority against minority, citizens against immigrants, rural against urban, uneducated against the educated, men against women. Division is based on fear: fear of those who are different, fear of the unknown, fear of disorder and destitution. These were the tools of fascism in the previous century. COVID-19, coming as it does at a time of so many other changes, offers a stage for those who practice the politics of division to do their worst.
But the way to fight this danger is to remember that politics of unity and hope has historically won over the politics of division and fear. It is the role of community, educational, and intellectual leaders to unite with their constituencies against divisive politics. And we should act now, before the narrowing window of opportunity slams shut before our eyes.
Week In Politics: U.S. Sees Job Gains In May – NPR
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Of course, when President Trump called in the National Guard in the streets of Washington, D.C., he told governors in a conference call they must be dominating. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us now. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: The president spoke at the White House yesterday for roughly an hour. And with all of the events and ferment going on, he spoke mostly about the May jobs numbers, didn’t he?
ELVING: Yes, indeed, he did. And it may have been the first time we’ve seen a president take a victory lap for 13% unemployment. But, you know, that was a better number than April by almost a point and a half and way better than what economists and journalists were expecting. So it turns out that even after a short period of reopening restaurants and dentist offices and so on, millions of furloughed folks go back, and it offsets the further job losses elsewhere in the economy. And, of course, the president has been cheerleading for quick reopening. And so here he is yesterday describing this recovery.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now we’re opening, and we’re opening with a bang. And we’ve been talking about the V. This is better than a V. This is a rocket ship.
ELVING: One thing about a rocket ship, though, Scott, as a metaphor, it does set certain expectations. Right now, the stimulus bills are still shoring up the economy to some extent, and permanent job losses actually increased in the month of May. We should note as well that job losses for African Americans actually grew and the gap between white and black unemployment got worse. Still, it was easily the best news the president has had on any front in some time.
SIMON: And this week, the president was the subject of grave and serious criticism from high-profile and respected people who once worked for him who do not approve of his leadership, do they?
ELVING: It started with that dressing down of the governors that you mentioned. Then we had the violent clearing of peaceful protesters from the park across from the White House to set up Trump’s photo-op with the Bible in the boarded-up church. All this prompted unusually sharp responses from a number of retired national security officials and even military officers, such as retired Marine General and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. They denounced the president’s talk about sending troops into American cities, and Mattis in particular said the president had not even tried to unite the country or even pretended to try. He said the president had chosen to divide and deepen the divide. And another retired Marine general, John Allen, wrote that the events of Monday night, the clearing of the park across from the White House, looked like the beginning of the end for American democracy.
SIMON: And when these generals spoke up, a number of, I guess what we’d call – what we used to call, I might say, centrist Republicans seemed to also speak. I’m thinking specifically of the Republican senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski.
ELVING: Yes. Senator Murkowski has not been a big Trump booster, but she has stood by him on the big votes. Now, with her newfound reluctance, the president has targeted her on Twitter, vowing to support anyone who will oppose her in her next primary – anyone with a pulse, the president said.
And one other remarkable thing the president said to end the week, on Friday morning, talking about the jobs report, he said George Floyd was hopefully looking down and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. Continuing to quote the president, “a great day for him, a great day for everybody, a great day in terms of equality.”
SIMON: Do we know where, when the Republican National Convention in August is going to be?
ELVING: Not really. The governor there in North Carolina, Roy Cooper, is a Democrat. He says they are still seeing a lot of new COVID cases in North Carolina. He can’t guarantee approval for 20,000 people to go to Charlotte and jam into a basketball arena in August. And that prompted the president to say he was going to move his acceptance speech, the centerpiece of the convention, out of Charlotte, possibly to Tennessee or Texas or maybe most likely to Florida, which is now his home state.
SIMON: And we will note the polls don’t look so good for the president.
ELVING: It’s been a rough week for Trump in the polls, several of which now have him trailing Joe Biden nationally by 7 points or as many as 11.
SIMON: NPR’s Ron Elving, thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
The Class of 2020 Is Missing Out, and So Are Politicians – The New York Times
The event comes with a captive audience of thousands — Republicans, Democrats, “apolitical” relatives, little siblings too young to vote. Everybody sits trapped in their bleacher seats. After 20 minutes, they dutifully applaud.
For a politician, a commencement speaking gig offers the kind of advertising that money can’t buy. “You have people of all different backgrounds gathered,” said Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, who delivered two dozen virtual commencement speeches this spring. “It’s a time of extraordinary diversity.”
Mr. Booker recalled that when he was chosen to give the address at the University of Pennsylvania in 2017, there were Republican trustees “pooh-poohing” the choice of such a partisan speaker. (He won them over, he said, with his focus on “our common values” and “the larger body politic.”)
College graduation ceremonies are fittingly focused on the graduates, but for some 20-odd minutes the spotlight turns to the illustrious speaker. Ideally the audience, in what Mr. Booker called its “extraordinary diversity,” might inspire a speech that transcends ideological divisions, as some of the most memorable ones have. The Apple founder Steve Jobs earned his spot in the commencement hall of fame with a 2005 speech at Stanford University reminding students that “you are going to die.” But when a politician steps up to the lectern, the message tends to veer away from death and toward politics.
This was no exception for the class of 2020. While isolated at home in their pajamas because of the coronavirus pandemic, graduates were saluted in virtual ceremonies headlined by government figures and entertainers. Former President Barack Obama celebrated the more than 27,000 graduates of historically black colleges and universities in May, and on Sunday he is set to join Lady Gaga, Malala Yousafzai and others in a “Dear Class of 2020” event hosted by YouTube, a lineup that even the most ambitious real-life commencement would find impossible to replicate.
One class of graduates will get its celebration in person: the 1,000 West Point cadets, who will be addressed by President Trump on June 13.
Tia Humphries, a Howard University graduate from Orlando, Fla., watched Mr. Obama’s virtual address with family in her living room, which her parents had decorated with streamers and balloons to mimic what Howard’s gymnasium would have looked like for the ceremony.
It quickly became clear the speech was not just for Ms. Humphries and her friends. The speech, given on May 16, weeks before Mr. Obama addressed the nation on the killing of George Floyd and the protest movement that followed, still used the momentous occasion as a way to reach beyond the graduates and their families.
The former president made headlines by using the opportunity to criticize the country leadership’s response to the coronavirus. He urged the graduates to take responsibility in the midst of the crisis, when political leaders “aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
Mr. Obama’s words followed in a long tradition of graduation speeches, landing in moments of national crisis, that are partly for the graduates and partly their country at large.
President John F. Kennedy called for a nuclear test ban treaty at American University’s 1963 graduation. President Lyndon B. Johnson created the framework for affirmative action policy at Howard University in 1965, the year after the Civil Rights Act passed. In 2002, President George W. Bush told graduates of the U.S. Military Academy that the country should be prepared for “pre-emptive action” in Iraq.
These speeches form a presidential ritual as familiar as it is peculiar: addressing the nation through its newly minted adults.
Leland Shelton, a 2013 graduate of Morehouse College, recalled his experience with the personal milestone turned political. Mr. Shelton had spent the months before his graduation lobbying class leaders to pick Ray Lewis, a Baltimore Ravens linebacker, as the commencement speaker. Instead, they chose their president, Mr. Obama.
Midway through the speech the improbable happened. “Where’s Leland?” Mr. Obama said. The president went on to praise Mr. Shelton, a foster care child with a mother in prison who was Phi Beta Kappa and Harvard Law-bound. Mr. Shelton stood up to thunderous applause, listening in disbelief and wishing his mother was present.
But to Mr. Shelton, being included in the speech was also complicated. Mr. Obama spent several minutes urging the Morehouse graduates to be good parents to their children.
“I was thinking, ‘You’re talking to an audience of 550 black men going on to some of the best professional schools in the country,’” Mr. Shelton said. The message seemed to “harken to stereotypes about black men not being good fathers, which I don’t think are true.”
Some political commencement speeches evoke far more than mixed emotions. In 2014, Condoleezza Rice had to withdraw from the Rutgers commencement after students staged a sit-in condemning her foreign policy at the university president’s office.
Kathleen Sebelius, former secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration, was interrupted by a heckler at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute in 2012, and a small group protested her appearance at the university’s front gate. Georgetown’s president said it was the decision of students at the institute to invite Ms. Sebelius as a speaker.
Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university in Daytona Beach, Fla., had its 2017 commencement interrupted when some students turned their backs on the speaker, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Student leaders said they were protesting comments Ms. DeVos made three months earlier that referred to historically black institutions as “pioneers” of “school choice”; they were established at the height of racial segregation.
For Fedrick Ingram, an older alumnus of the university who helped coordinate the protests, the disruption was the highlight of the ceremony. “It was electricity,” he said. “It was almost like 1968 with the Freedom Riders.” The university president had threatened to withhold degrees from students who disrupted the ceremony, but dozens booed Ms. DeVos anyway.
Political commencement speeches aren’t always mired in drama, but for many students and families they evoke a simpler question: Why draw politics into a day that’s otherwise festive and uncontroversial?
That was a question on Michael Agnello’s mind, when the University of Massachusetts, Amherst announced Elizabeth Warren as its undergraduate commencement speaker, in 2017. Mr. Agnello was a fan of the Massachusetts senator, but he knew his more conservative family members would be skeptical of the university’s decision. He decided to bring some levity to the day by creating “Elizabeth Warren’s Commencement Speech Drinking Game.”
The rules Mr. Agnello designed were straightforward. For a mention of “the disappearing middle class,” he advised readers to “fight fire with fire and rip that Fireball.” For a discussion of “student debt,” the rule was to “quell such injustice” with “a nip of Smirnoff.”
But he was not expecting the senator to stumble upon his game online and refer to it directly — which she did midway through her speech, with a reference to Fireball that delighted his conservative relatives.
“By the time we walked out of the football stadium I had 30 texts on my phone like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that just happened,’” Mr. Agnello said. “My family was cracking up.”
Politicians, for their part, realize the difficulties of imparting wisdom to an audience with lots of competing concerns, from family drama to last hurrah hangovers. “It’s always a crapshoot with graduating seniors because a lot of them might have been out super late the night before,” said Cody Keenan, a speechwriter for Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama gave more than two dozen commencement speeches while in office — at military schools like West Point, state institutions like Ohio State and private ones like Barnard. Over years of commencement speechwriting, Mr. Keenan developed rules of the road. The speaker should be funny and self-deprecating. He should not over-index on the political, even in an election season.
Most important, Mr. Keenan said, is that speechwriters not fixate on producing a speech that becomes an instant classic.
“One of the mistakes people make is that they’re like, ‘I want to break through,’” he said. “‘I want to be Steve Jobs in 2005.’ Steve Jobs broke through because he was dying and explicitly talked about that.”
Kendra Grissom, who graduated from Spelman College last month, was looking forward to the many rites of commencement weekend: marching through the alumni arch, dressing up for senior soiree, passing down the class cymbal. Instead, she said, she spent it propped up in bed watching a parade of digital speeches from “Debbie Allen, some executive from Chase and a basketball player.”
But Mr. Obama offered some assurance for graduates like Ms. Grissom: “The disappointments of missing a live graduation, those will pass pretty quick,” he said. The greatest solace, according to the former president: “Not having to sit there and listen to a commencement speaker isn’t all that bad. Mine usually go on way too long.”
Amid protests, US faith leaders engage racism and politics – Rimbey Review
Amid protests, U.S. faith leaders engage racism and politics
NEW YORK — As days of anti-racism protests sparked by police killings push Americans toward a national reckoning, religious leaders are stepping more directly into the politics surrounding discrimination, entering into a dialogue that cuts across lines of faith and colour.
Groups from multiple denominations across Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths have publicly called for action against racism, aligning with peaceful demonstrators’ goals following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Even beyond those statements, the amount and diversity of religious involvement in the ongoing protests suggests a possible sea change for faith-driven engagement in racial justice issues.
“I’ve seen people of different faiths coming out and saying ‘this was wrong’ in ways I didn’t see before,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice at the United Church of Christ and an early spiritual leader in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Religion’s role in struggles against racial bias long predates Floyd’s killing, which sparked mass demonstrations across the United States and even in other countries. But a notable shift has taken place this week.
Among those who’ve publicly backed protesters are clergy from the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox and Reform Judaism.
Meanwhile Catholic and Episcopal leaders openly criticized President Donald Trump after peaceful demonstrators were forcefully cleared to make way for his brief visit and photo-op outside the historic St. John’s Church near the White House.
On Wednesday, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, leader of the United Methodist Church’s Washington-area conference, joined Rev. Mariann Budde, the bishop of Washington’s Episcopal diocese, which includes St. Johns, and other faith leaders for a prayer vigil that aimed to orient the religious conversation around fighting racism.
“I think that all leaders that consider themselves to be religious or moral leaders have an obligation to rise and to speak to this moment, because institutional racism and supremacy cannot be dismantled by African American leaders alone,” said Easterling, who is African American. “Those who enjoy the privilege of those systems must rise.”
The vigil was initially set to take place at St. John’s but had to move to a nearby block after local law enforcement extended the security perimeter around the White House.
Budde, who expressed outrage Monday over Trump’s use of St. John’s as a backdrop, said white Americans need to engage more in “the realities of this country that we … are allowed to be blind to in ways that cost people of colour.”
Trump’s visit, in which he held up a Bible and said “we have a great country,” was at least in part intended as a show of solidarity with faith, according to the White House. But the manoeuvr nudged Budde and other religious leaders to wade further into the political realm, airing their disagreement.
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