America is a failing state

According to Harvard political scientist Robert Rotberg, states fail because of the purposeful actions of their leaders. In writing these words in an edited volume back in 2007, Rotberg was referencing countries like Zimbabwe under the disastrous rule of Robert Mugabe in the 1990s and 2000s, or later Syria under Bashar Assad.

State failure doesn’t just happen. Rotberg writes:

Nation-states do not stumble into failure. Human agency is always the proximate cause. … [Even the weakest states] teeter on the precipice of failure only if and when they cheat their citizens or give unfair preference to one set of elites over another or over ordinary citizens.

I’m reviewing these arguments as I sit in my office because I’m discussing them with my students tonight in the class I’m teaching on international conflict and security. Toward the end of his chapter Rotberg lays out the warning signs of the dynamic process that is state failure. It is a process that always begins with the decisions of those holding power at the top.

I am struck by how familiar these warning signs appear in the fraught political moment we are currently living. The signals are economic, political, and violent.

Economic signs of a state slipping into failure include the drying up of foreign investment, massive job losses, and falling per capita incomes. Critical infrastructure, public education, provision of health care, and entitlement programs are chronically underfunded, cracking under the strain of government neglect. Meanwhile, the rulers tend to benefit from the economic inequalities being inflicted upon their citizens. As the poor get poorer, the rulers and their cronies get richer.

Does that sound familiar?

Political signs of impending state failure are signaled when leaders and their associates subvert existing democratic norms, restrict political participation of all kinds, including voting rights, crack down on civil society, and override institutional checks and balances on their own power. Regimes going down this path curtail judicial independence, harass the media, and co-opt the security forces into a mailed fist answering to the personal whims, interests, and dictates of the ruler. Rotberg writes:

[R]ulers show more and more contempt for their own nationals; surround themselves with family, lineage, or ethnic allies; and greatly narrow the focus of concern and responsibility.

Does that sound familiar?

The last warning signal is also the most ominous. If the level of societal violence rises precipitously, the state is clearly failing.

Does that one sound familiar too?

So here’s a question: What can we do to arrest the trend? Because, as Rotberg argues, corrupt autocrats and their associates usually have little incentive to arrest the slide into state failure. They benefit from it.

How about this. If you can vote early, do so. If you are voting absentee, don’t trust it to the postal service. Take your ballot to your town clerk’s office or to an official ballot dropbox. And if you haven’t done those things, then do what I’m going to do.

Go to your local polling place next Tuesday, Nov. 3, and cast your vote for candidates that will work to turn this thing around. What can we do?

We can vote.

Are journalists at risk?

(Credit: Bloomberg)

Ever since the domestic terrorist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was disrupted by the FBI and State Police, one of the questions that I’ve repeatedly fielded from local journalists and reporters is whether they are at risk themselves from the kind of anti-government extremists behind the planned attack against Whitmer.

My immediate reaction was no, just off the top of my head. Such anti-government groups have an ideology that points toward a very different target list.

While anything is possible, I could not recall a single incident of an attack on a journalist or media establishment by any organized American far-right group, at least since the early 1980s, and only one or two by violent right-wing extremists since. But when in doubt, look at the data. In this case, that data comes from the Global Terrorism Database.

From 1980 through 2018 there have only been 44 terrorist attacks on journalists or the media in the United States. Only six of those attacks occurred since 2010.

Only a handful of attacks attributable to organizations or extremists on the political far right — including antisemitic, white supremacist, white nationalist, or anti-government — have been carried out in this nearly 40 year period. Here’s a quick list, in chronological order. Descriptions of the events are taken from the incident summaries presented in the Global Terrorism Database, augmented with additional research where helpful.

  • Dec. 19, 1981 — Jackson, Miss: This is the first of two attacks on the office of the Black newspaper the Jackson Advocate, one month apart. In this case shots were fired into the building, and firebombs thrown. While no specific group was identified as responsible, see the next entry.
  • Jan. 1, 1982 — Jackson, Miss: Two members of the Ku Klux Klan carry out a second attack on the offices of the Jackson Advocate, firing rifles through the windows. both perpetrators were arrested.
  • June 18, 1984 — Denver: Prominent and controversial Jewish talk-radio host Alan Berg is assassinated outside his home by members of The Order, a white supremacist terrorist group active between September 1983 and December 1984.
  • May 1, 1996 — Spokane Valley, Wash.: Two masked attackers detonate a pipe bomb at a suburban office of The Spokesman-Review newspaper. The bombing was apparently a diversion intended to occupy police while a nearby bank was robbed. The attackers left notes at both scenes signed “Phineas Priests.” The Phineas Priests were not a formal organization, but a self-description adopted by extremists rooted in the racist and antisemitic Christian Identity movement.
  • Dec. 15, 2016 — Dallas, Texas: Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who has epilepsy, suffers a seizure triggered by a flashing GIF image embedded in an electronic message sent to him via Twitter. The original indictment in the case charged the perpetrator was motivated by anti-Jewish bias.
  • Oct. 29, 2018 — Atlanta, Ga.: A letter bomb addressed to the offices of CNN is discovered and defused at a mail sorting facility in Atlanta. This was one of 16 coordinated mail bomb attacks between Oct. 22 and Nov. 1, 2018 targeting critics of Pres. Donald Trump. When the suspect in the attacks, Cesar Sayoc, was arrested, his vehicle was covered with posters and stickers espousing right-wing propaganda. Sayoc is described in the GTD data as a “pro-Trump” extremist.

So that’s the list. Since 1980, we can only attribute six out of 44 terrorist attacks targeting journalists or media establishments on groups or individuals that we can place on the extremist far-right of the American political spectrum. None of those attacks are linked to the kind of anti-government far right groups accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor. They’ve mostly been the work of racists and antisemites.

Does this mean that journalists won’t potentially become targets in the future? No, we can’t say that. But we can say that, in general, these groups tend to have other targets in their crosshairs.

We’ll see if he was right

(Credit: Pia Guerra, The Nib)

Remember this quote from January 2016?

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

Only in 2020 Donald Trumps didn’t need a gun. All he needed was a hefty viral load of SARS-COV 2 and a callous disregard for others‘ safety, perhaps even their very survival.

Meanwhile, the West Wing outbreak continues to grow, with more than a dozen people in the president’s close orbit infected, and the potential for hundreds of additional cases among his donors, supporters, and their friends and families spread out from Duluth, Minn. to Doral, Fla.

But if you thought he’d come out of this experience in any way chastened, or at least empathetic for the plight of the 7.4 million other Americans who have contracted the virus, none of whom have access to the kind of medical treatment that he received, or the families and loved ones of the more than 205,000 who have died, think again.

I guess those folks were losers and suckers too.

So was he right? Could Trump stand in the equivalent of Fifth Avenue, shoot someone, and not lose any voters? We’ll find out in a few short weeks.

Music for a Friday — ‘Gunfighter Ballads’

Boy do we need a diversion right now. At this rate October is going to last until 2022. From the debacle that was the first presidential debate to the revelation that the president has contracted COVID-19, we’re off to a helluva start.

So let’s change the mood and talk about one of the great albums of all time, Marty Robbins “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” Released by Columbia Records in September 1959, the album was recorded in a single eight-hour session earlier that year.

In an appreciation over at the website Medium, Brian Braunlich writes:

It’s truly odd listening to an album like Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs in the midst of the Corona crisis. The tunes are not hopeful or optimistic for the most part, but the feeling of listening to these warm campfire tunes is nostalgic for a more hopeful time, when the villains were simple (and human), the stories easy to follow, the problems invented or retold and not lived. It’s … kind of comforting.

“El Paso” on this record is evidently the first Country song to win a Grammy, and it’s well deserved. A beautifully tragic story filling its space with rich details of Rose’s Cantina, the beautiful Fellina’s eyes, the slow fade of death. It soars, a perfect classic country song.

Robbins as a songwriter is responsible for the real gems here — “El Paso,” but also “Big Iron,” which kicks the album off on a strong note. “The Master’s Call” later is another strong contribution. But the remainder of the more traditional country ballads or tunes here are well presented by Robbins and his band.

While I was familiar with some of the songs, “El Paso” in particular, I only recently became acquainted with the full album, picking up a vinyl copy at the urging of my college-senior son who has long been a fan. In fact, the first time I heard “Big Iron” was during a jam session in my living room, performed by that same son. He also does some mean Johnny Cash stuff, but that’s a story for another post.

It’s a classic album for a reason. Pick up a copy if you can, and for the full impact, make it vinyl. Check out this really good video from Esoteric Internet, giving the story behind the album and, in particular, the archetypal gunfighter song, “Big Iron.”

And here’s the song itself.