Street art in Venezuela
by artist Steep.
Photo by steepart.
Street art in Venezuela
by artist Steep.
Photo by steepart.
You like what Bernie’s calling for, but you just don’t think he’s likely to win the general election, perhaps because “this country would never elect a socialist.” And even if he did win, you don’t think he’d be able to accomplish his goals, given how entrenched the GOP opposition is. Maybe you even think it’s already settled—that Hillary’s got the nomination locked up.
Here’s why going with that assumption—and backing Hillary in general—would be, in the words of Donald Trump, a disaster.
Contrary to conventional pundit wisdom, Hillary is not the stronger general-election candidate.
So far Clinton seems to have retained the status of favorite for the Democratic nomination. But there are strong signs that it’s Sanders who would fare better against the eventual GOP nominee.
Recent polling shows Sanders doing better than Clinton against each of the Republican contenders. One can question the relevance of early-stage matchups such as these, but as Princeton’s Matt Karp recently noted in his eye-opening pieceon Sanders and Clinton’s comparative electability:
We may be skeptical about the predictive power of these findings, nine months before Election Day. But it’s wrong to call them “absolutely worthless” … In a comprehensive analysis of elections between 1952 and 2008, Robert Erikson and Christopher Wleizen found that matchup polls as early as April have generally produced results close to the outcome in November.
Even much earlier “trial heats” seem to be far from meaningless. As partisan polarization has increased over the last three decades, there’s some evidence that early polling has become more predictive than ever. In all five elections since 1996, February matchup polls yielded average results within two points of the final outcome.
Still skeptical? Consider the candidates’ favorability ratings: Sanders is the only one of the leading candidates—from either party—with a greater favorable than unfavorable rating. Hillary’s 53-percent unfavorable rating would, as Karp noted, “make her the most disliked presidential nominee in modern history.” (See all of the candidates’ ratings here.)
A look at party identification is also revealing: Independents now vastly outnumber Democrats or Republicans, and among independents, Sanders is far and away the favorite. Meanwhile, as statistician Joshua Loftus notes: “Dangerously, even Donald Trump and Ted Cruz get a much greater proportion of independent voters than Clinton.”
Putting Clinton and Sanders side by side, Salon’s H.A. Goodman summarized it well:
In one major poll, Bernie Sanders is now leading Hillary Clinton nationally. In most others, he’s not far behind from the former Secretary of State. … Bernie Sanders is the only Democratic candidate capable of winning the White House in 2016. Please name the last person to win the presidency alongside an ongoing FBI investigation, negative favorability ratings, questions about character linked to continual flip-flops, a dubious money trail of donors, and the genuine contempt of the rival political party. In reality, Clinton is a liability to Democrats…
Even if she were more electable (which—again—it seems she isn’t), consider Hillary on her own terms.
Some say Sanders’ plan is too ambitious. (Others very much disagree.) The critics say Clinton’s proposals are more likely to get past entrenched opposition. But this position seems strange: Why would starting out asking for less yield better results? If the Obama years have taught us nothing else, it’s that far-right members of Congress will prioritize obstruction. So why not go for broke, harness the appeal thatincreasing taxes on the wealthiest to redistribute money to the middle class has with a majority of Americans, and invest in jobs, infrastructure, public education, healthcare, etc.? (Admittedly the difficult first step would be building the necessary coalition to end ownership of our elections by the wealthy. But here, Clinton seems even less likely to fight tooth and nail.)
But even apart from question of feasibility, we have to ask: Were Clinton to take office, would she seriously push for greater economic fairness, more peace and a generally progressive agenda, or would she defend the status quo?
To answer this, let’s look first at our context.
The senator is upset with a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged. He believes that we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness. He thinks many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field.
I agree with him.
So what the hell is going on?
Hillary at Home
Famed economist Thomas Piketty recently offered a brief take on where things stand: “Sanders’ success today shows that much of America is tired of rising inequality … and intends to revive both a progressive agenda and the American tradition of egalitarianism. Hillary Clinton, who fought to the left of Barack Obama in 2008 on topics such as health insurance, appears today as if she is defending the status quo, just another heiress of the Reagan-Clinton-Obama political regime.” To explain, he points to wealth distribution under the past century’s presidents:
From 1930 to 1980 – for half a century – the rate for the highest US income (over $1m per year) was on average 82%, with peaks of 91% from the 1940s to 1960s (from Roosevelt to Kennedy), and still as high as 70% during Reagan’s election in 1980. … Reagan was elected in 1980 on a program aiming to restore a mythical capitalism said to have existed in the past. … The culmination of this new program was the tax reform of 1986, which ended half a century of a progressive tax system and lowered the rate applicable to the highest incomes to 28%.
Democrats never truly challenged this choice in the Clinton (1992-2000) and Obama (2008-2016) years, which stabilized the taxation rate at around 40% (two times lower than the average level for the period 1930 to 1980). This triggered an explosion of inequality coupled with incredibly high salaries for those who could get them, as well as a stagnation of revenues for most of America – all of which was accompanied by low growth.
It’s hard to imagine that Hillary would break—much less break significantly—from this wealthy-friendly, bipartisan consensus.
One reason is her take on the financial sector. She’s made it clear that she won’t seek to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which Bill repealed, and whose absence is broadly considered central to the 2008-2009 financial crisis, during which countless Americans lost their savings, homes, and jobs, while major banks were bailed out from the public coffers and bank executives continued receiving massive bonuses. So, it doesn’t take much skepticism to see why Wall Street is donating so heavily to her campaign (to say nothing of her controversial paid speeches to the big banks, whose transcripts she refuses to release).
When it comes to the poorer end of the economic spectrum, we can rewind to Clinton’s time as first lady—or “co-president” as some called her—for more background. Recently Michelle Alexander noted that “Hillary wasn’t picking out china while she was first lady. She bravely broke the mold and redefined that job in ways no woman ever had before. She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures.”
Arguing that the Clintons decimated black America, Alexander offers a stunning anecdote:
In [Hillary’s] support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, she used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
When the Clintons left the White House in 2001, with the War on Crime and War on Drugs by then entrenched public policy, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world. “Human Rights Watch reported that in seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, even though they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs,” Alexander explains. She follows this with one of the clearest summaries of Clinton-era welfare reform:
The federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to “end welfare as we know it.” In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that ‘the era of big government is over’ and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed—which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008—replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).
Experts and pundits disagree about the true impact of welfare reform, but one thing seems clear: Extreme poverty doubled to 1.5 million in the decade and a half after the law was passed.
Many Hillary supporters argue that it’s unfair to judge her by Bill’s work as president. But even aside from her active engagement on these issues as first lady, it seems naive to imagine that she would somehow represent a significant break from this history. Hillary Clinton is more Wal-Mart board member and less friend to labor.
The foreign policy argument for Clinton tends to skip over her time in the Senate—when she voted for the Patriot Act and the 2003 invasion of Iraq—and focus on her experience as secretary of state. But the details of this experience (apart from the email scandal and the ill-founded GOP congressional investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attacks) receive little attention.
Even a mildly critical look at her time as secretary of state reveals a chilling record.
After Clinton’s dramatic hearing on Libya in Congress last October, Patrick Cockburn (for decades one of the most incisive and sober journalists covering the Middle East)wrote that “neither Clinton nor the Republican Congressmen showed much interest in the present calamitous state of Libya, which is divided into fiefdoms ruled by criminalised warlords reliant on terror and torture. Benghazi is partly in ruins and is fought over by rival factions, while Islamic State has carved out enclaves where it decapitates Egyptian Copts and Ethiopian Christians.” Cockburn continues:
Of course, there is a strong case against Clinton’s actions in Libya, but they relate to her support for the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 … . There is no doubt that she played a crucial role … in the decision by the US to intervene on the side of the anti-Gaddafi rebels. … Clinton was proud of her action, proclaiming in October 2011 after the killing of Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” She said during the recent Democratic presidential candidates’ debate that what she did in Libya was “smart power at its best.”
Arguing that “Hillary is the Candidate of the War Machine,” Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs recently extended Cockburn’s point: “After the NATO bombing, Libya descended into civil war while the paramilitaries and unsecured arms stashes in Libya quickly spread west across the African Sahel and east to Syria. The Libyan disaster has spawned war in Mali, fed weapons to Boko Haram in Nigeria, and fueled ISIS in Syria and Iraq.”
Sachs moves on with this summary of Clinton’s work in Syria:
Perhaps [her] crowning disaster … has been [her] relentless promotion of CIA-led regime change in Syria. Once again Hillary bought into the CIA propaganda that regime change to remove Bashar al-Assad would be quick, costless, and surely successful. In August 2011, Hillary led the US into disaster with her declaration Assad must “get out of the way,” backed by secret CIA operations.
Five years later, no place on the planet is more ravaged by unending war, and no place poses a great threat to US security. More than 10 million Syrians are displaced, and the refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean or undermining the political stability of Greece, Turkey, and the European Union. Into the chaos created by the secret CIA-Saudi operations to overthrow Assad, ISIS has filled the vacuum, and has used Syria as the base for worldwide terrorist attacks.
It seems Secretary Clinton’s hawkishness was matched only by her arms dealing. As the Intercept’s Lee Fang recently reported: after making weapons transfer to Saudi Arabia a “top priority” as secretary of state, emails from Clinton’s private server recently released under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit:
show her aides kept her well-informed of the approval process for a $29.4 billion sale in 2011 of up to 84 advanced F-15SA fighters, manufactured by Boeing, along with upgrades to the pre-existing Saudi fleet of 70 F-15 aircraft and munitions, spare parts, training, maintenance, and logistics. The deal was finalized on Christmas Eve 2011.
Afterward, Jake Sullivan, then Clinton’s deputy chief of staff ad now a senior policy adviser on her presidential campaign, sent her a celebratory email string topped with the chipper message: “FYI — good news.”
As for what became of the arms: Saudi Arabia is almost a year into a bombing campaign in Yemen that, as Fang explains, has been led by the American-made F-15 jet fighters:
The indiscriminate bombing of civilians and rescuers from the air has prompted human rights organizations to claim that some Saudi-led strikes on Yemen may amount to war crimes. At least 2,800 civilians have been killed in the conflict so far, according to the United Nations — mostly by airstrikes. The strikes have killed journalists and ambulance drivers.
The planes, made by Boeing, have been implicated in the bombing of three facilities supported by Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières). The U.N. Secretary General has decried “intense airstrikes in residential areas and on civilian buildings in Sanaa, including the chamber of commerce, a wedding hall, and a center for the blind,” and has warned that reports of cluster bombs being used in populated areas “may amount to a war crime due to their indiscriminate nature.”
But the Saudi deal was just one small part of a larger and even more troubling picture. As the International Business Times (IBT) reported, under Clinton the State Department signed off on $316 billion in arms sales to countries that donated to the Clinton Foundation. Now the Clinton campaign has received vastly more supportfrom arms manufacturers than any other candidate of either party.
A look at her work in Latin America adds to the trouble. In June, Salon’s Matthew Pulver showed how Secretary Clinton provided cover for a right-wing coup in Honduras. Political violence spiked in the chaos that followed, and the country went on to have the highest murder rate in the world.
And as the IBT reported last April: As the United States was liberalizing trade with Colombia in 2011, “union leaders and human rights activists conveyed … harrowing reports of violence [by the Colombian military against striking oil workers] to then–Secretary of State Clinton … urging her to pressure the Colombian government to protect labor organizers, she responded first with silence, these organizers say. The State Department publicly praised Colombia’s progress on human rights, thereby permitting hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to flow to the same Colombian military that labor activists say helped intimidate workers.” The IBT report continues:
At the same time that Clinton’s State Department was lauding Colombia’s human rights record, her family was forging a financial relationship with Pacific Rubiales, the sprawling Canadian petroleum company at the center of Colombia’s labor strife. The Clintons were also developing commercial ties with the oil giant’s founder, Canadian financier Frank Giustra, who now occupies a seat on the board of the Clinton Foundation, the family’s global philanthropic empire.
The details of these financial dealings remain murky, but this much is clear: After millions of dollars were pledged by the oil company to the Clinton Foundation — supplemented by millions more from Giustra himself — Secretary Clinton abruptly changed her position on the controversial U.S.-Colombia trade pact. Having opposed the deal as a bad one for labor rights back when she was a presidential candidate in 2008, she now promoted it, calling it “strongly in the interests of both Colombia and the United States.” The change of heart by Clinton and other Democratic leaders enabled congressional passage of a Colombia trade deal that experts say delivered big benefits to foreign investors like Giustra.
Hillary in General
It seems then, that the only remaining argument for Clinton is that she knows what all of us idealists don’t: that to get things done in a messy world, you have to get your hands dirty. (After all, as some leftist critics have argued, Sanders’ hands aren’t entirely clean. If Clinton wins the nomination, we may even come to see him speaking passionately on her behalf at the Democratic National Convention.)
This argument might be compelling if it weren’t for the fact that Clinton, far from “getting things done” for those who need it most, instead seems primarily to be about “getting things done” for the corporate elite, for vassal states like Saudi Arabia, and indeed for herself.
A NATO convoy under German leadership is to begin operations in the Aegean Sea in the next few days, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday.
The official goal of the mission is the complete closure of the Aegean to refugees, militarily strengthening “Fortress Europe” against refugees from the war zones in the Middle East. The dispatch of warships to the strategic Aegean Sea also heightens the risk of NATO intervention in the Syrian civil war and war with Russia.
Stoltenberg said in a press release that the goal of NATO was “the disruption of the routes used by smugglers and for illegal migration in the Aegean.” He boasted that the ships of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG 2) had already arrived in the mission area 48 hours after the decision of NATO defence ministers was taken two weeks ago. Now it was a matter of collectively finding “solutions” for the “crisis.”
By “solutions” of the refugee crisis, Stoltenberg and NATO mean the military strengthening of the Greek and Turkish coast guard and the European border protection agency Frontex in order to detect and stop refugee boats, also possibly forcing them back.
Stoltenberg said, “Our ships will provide information for the Greek and Turkish coast guard and other national authorities, allowing them to act even more effectively against illegal trafficking networks. We will also establish direct connections to European Frontex … so that it can do its ‘job’ more effectively.”
In other words, Frontex, supported by NATO warships, should conduct its notorious “push-back” operations more intensively, i.e. a refugee boat being tracked should be “towed back where it came from—for example, to Turkey”. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière demanded this last December in an interview with Die Welt. Now it is official EU and NATO policy. Stoltenberg said, “If people are rescued who have come through Turkey, they will be returned to Turkey.”
The operation comes from an initiative by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, agreed at a meeting of NATO defence ministers on 11 February. Berlin is taking over the management of the NATO alliance. In a statement last Thursday, von der Leyen praised the NATO decision “under German leadership” as being “quick and clear”. Last Friday, the German supply ship Bonn, which will lead the naval group, set off from the NATO base at Souda in Crete. On board was the German Commodore Jörg Klein, commander of SNMG 2.
With the military mission, the German government wants to “drastically and sustainably” reduce the number of refugees coming to Greece via Turkey, as de Maizière declared on the periphery of an EU meeting in Brussels. This should happen by March 7. Then a special EU summit would take place attended by Turkey.
The official goal of the Merkel government is to commit the Erdogan regime to a dirty deal on fully closing the borders for refugees and to detain refugee boats before they can even leave Turkey. As “compensation”, the German government will provide financial support to Ankara. Last week in a government statement, Merkel reaffirmed her support for a no-fly zone in Syria, a central demand of the Erdogan government and an important condition for Ankara’s military invasion of Syria.
The NATO mission in the Aegean not only entails increased support for Turkey’s war drive against the Kurds and the Syrian government, but is a direct part of the NATO war preparations against Russia.
An official NATO report indicates that the SNMG 2 force had conducted “intensive operations with the Turkish Navy” in early February. This included carrying out air defence operations, submarine war operations and live firing exercises (GUNEX). Turkish F-16 fighter jets were also involved in the exercise.
According to Klein, the aim was to develop the force’s “own abilities” and “to consolidate a team” out of the units. As well as the German flagship, the “team” that he is currently leading in the Aegean includes two heavily armed frigates, the Canadian vessel HMCS Fredericton and the Greek ship Salamis (F-455), and a Turkish warship. The SNMG 2 group is part of the NATO Response Force (NRF), the NATO rapid reaction force, which was systematically upgraded last year against Russia.
The location and organisation of the exercise alone underscore what NATO is preparing. Russia is currently the only power that is active in the region with larger naval units and warplanes, and is considered as an enemy by NATO. The Russian Air Force is supporting Syria’s Assad regime being combatted by the West, and warships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet regularly transit the Aegean between their home ports in the Crimea and Tartus in Syria, where the only Russian naval base is located in the Mediterranean Sea.
The increasing NATO presence in the Aegean heightens the risk of a direct clash between NATO and Russia. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, there was a near-collision off the Greek island of Lemnos in December, between a Turkish fishing boat and the Russian destroyer Smetliwij. Russia regarded the incident as a deliberate provocation by the Turkish Navy, and summoned the Turkish military attaché in Moscow. Since the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey on November 24, 2015, tensions between Turkey and Russia have steadily increased.
In its latest edition, news weekly Der Spiegel describes the consequences, including those unintended, of the NATO mission. It says of the growing “risk of war between Russia and Turkey”: “It is the year in which the world stands as close to a nuclear war as never before in the history of the Cold War. Provocations, red lines, which are crossed, airspace violations, a shot-down aircraft. A missile fired in error or a submarine commander who loses his nerve can trigger a world war.”
“AÚN HAY VIDA EN ESTAS AGUAS” (Detail)
Street art in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico,
by artist Amauri Huitzilopochtli.
Photo by Amauri Huitzilopochtli.
The US Air Force launched a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile from an underground bunker on the California coast late Thursday night, the second such test firing of an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the space of just one week.
The missile, which hit a test range in the waters of the Kwajalein Atoll, some 2,500 miles southwest of Honolulu, normally carries three independently targeted warheads, each with 20 times the destructive power of the bombs that killed as many as 350,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For Thursday’s flight, it carried a bundle of test instruments.
To ensure that the political significance of the back-to-back launches (there have been just 15 such tests since 2011) was lost on no one, Robert Work, the US deputy secretary of defense, gave an interview on Thursday specifically naming Russia and China and describing the test firings as “a signal … that we are prepared to use nuclear weapons in defense of our country if necessary.”
This highly unusual and extremely provocative declaration of Washington’s readiness to wage a nuclear war came amid rising tensions with China in the South China Sea and Russia in both Syria and Eastern Europe. The nuclear threat has been accompanied by brazen saber-rattling by top Pentagon officials testifying before the US Congress in support of increased US arms spending.
This included testimony Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee from Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Navy’s Pacific Command, who called for a major escalation of US anti-Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea and charged that Beijing is seeking “hegemony in East Asia,” a strategic imperative that Washington itself is determined to attain by military means.
Even more incendiary were the remarks delivered to the same congressional panel Thursday by Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and chief of the US European Command. Breedlove described Russia as “resurgent” and “aggressive,” charging that Moscow had “chosen to be an adversary and poses a long-term existential threat” to the United States.
“The US and NATO must take a 360-degree approach to security—addressing the full spectrum of security challenges from any direction and [ensuring] we are using all elements of our nation’s power,” Breedlove said. In stressing “all elements” of US power, the Air Force general was referring to the Pentagon’s nuclear arsenal.
Breedlove lashed out at Russia’s five-month-old intervention in Syria, which he said had “wildly exacerbated the problem,” presumably by disrupting Washington’s attempt to secure regime change through a war in which Al Qaeda serves as America’s main proxy force on the ground. He went so far as to accuse Moscow of “weaponizing” the wave of migrants driven to seek refuge in Europe by the US-orchestrated civil war in Syria and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“To counter Russia, Eucom [the US European Command], working with allies and partners, is deterring Russia now and preparing to fight and win if necessary,” Breedlove declared. There is more than a whiff of madness in Breedlove’s remarks. For the top US commander in Europe to talk openly of preparing to “fight and win” against Russia smacks of an invitation to a nuclear holocaust.
Breedlove’s remarks were supplemented by those of US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who told the House Appropriations Committee that supposed “nuclear saber-rattling” by Moscow had called into question the Russian leadership’s “commitment to strategic stability” and “whether they respect the profound caution that nuclear-age leaders showed with regard to brandishing nuclear weapons.” As recent events have shown, Washington itself shares no such commitment or caution.
With some justification, Russia’s Defense Ministry linked this kind of bellicose rhetoric to the debate over the US military budget, remarking that the same “tide rises every year.” However, it would be a dangerous error to underestimate the advanced preparations being made by Washington for global war in general and for a military confrontation with Russia in particular.
This year’s proposed Pentagon budget includes $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative, quadrupling last year’s funding. The huge sum is to pay for the continuous rotation of brigade-size units of US combat troops in and out of the former Soviet Baltic republics as well as three eastern European countries, in what amounts to a permanent military siege of Russia’s western borders. In addition, it will fund the prepositioning of US military hardware, including tanks and heavy artillery, in the same area to allow for the rapid deployment of far larger military units. It will also go toward increased training and more weaponry for the collection of rabidly anti-Russian states in the region.
For the past two years, seizing on the crisis provoked by the Western-backed coup in Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea following its approval by a popular referendum, Washington and its allies have carried out an increasingly provocative military buildup whose aim is the intimidation, subjugation, and, ultimately, dismemberment of the Russian Federation. This has included the creation of a “rapid reaction force” that can draw on 40,000 NATO troops. It has also involved an unprecedented series of military exercises within striking distance of Russia’s borders.
A pair of think tanks that are intimately connected to the US military and intelligence apparatus have issued back-to-back reports supporting this buildup. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) issued a report earlier this month that was commissioned by US Army Europe. It argued that “a dramatic shift in both the European and transatlantic security paradigm requires a reevaluation of a full range of measures required for the United States to best deter Russia from similar acts of adventurism in and around alliance territory.”
On Friday, the Atlantic Council, a virtual arm of NATO, came out with a report, entitled “Alliance at Risk: Strengthening European Defense,” which argued for a major military buildup throughout Europe. Directed at shaping the discussion at the NATO summit scheduled to be held in Warsaw in July, it declares, “Strengthening European defense will provide resources to help deter the threat from the East and prevail over the dangers from the South.”
Drafted by top political and military figures, the report reviews the military status of Britain, which it describes as “hollowed out,” as well as France, Germany, Norway, Italy and Poland.
The section on Germany decries the “strong anti-militaristic streak” within the population and argues that “political leaders and commentators need to persuade and educate the public on the importance of a stronger defense posture.”
Most chilling is the section on Poland, drafted by Tomasz Szatkowski, the undersecretary of state in the Polish Ministry of National Defense, who argues for Warsaw’s development of a “nonnuclear deterrence” against Russia that would “consist of new capabilities, such as longer and more powerful warheads on cruise missiles, new types of weaponry (e.g., microwave technology), and offensive cyber capabilities and subversive oriented Special Operations Forces.”
Behind the scenes, without anything being said to the people of the United States or the world, US and NATO officials have been discussing changes in the Western nuclear posture and rules of engagement on the pretext that Moscow has violated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), an allegation that Russia has denied.
To prepare for aggressive nuclear war, the Obama administration has developed a $1 trillion nuclear weapons modernization program that envisions the deployment of new generations of long-range bombers, nuclear submarines, ICBMs and cruise missiles over the next 30 years. In the fiscal year 2017 Pentagon budget now under discussion, the administration has requested $9.2 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the Department of Energy, for the development of Washington’s stockpile of nuclear warheads.
Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or 17th or 43rd floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.
You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others.
Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability to find as much intimacy as is desired.
I know what that feels like. I’ve been a citizen of loneliness. I’ve done my time in empty rooms. A few years back I moved to New York, drifting through a succession of sublet apartments. A new relationship had abruptly turned to dust and though I had friends in the city I was paralysed by loneliness. The feelings I had were so raw and overwhelming I often wished I could find a way of losing myself altogether until the intensity diminished.
The revelation of loneliness, the omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack, that I didn’t have what people were supposed to, and that this was down to some grave and no doubt externally unmistakable failing in my person: all this had quickened lately, the unwelcome consequence of being so summarily dismissed.
I don’t suppose it was unrelated, either, to the fact that I was keeling towards the midpoint of my 30s, an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.
The experience was acutely painful, and yet as the months wore by I became weirdly fascinated by it. Loneliness, Dennis Wilson once sang, is a very special place, and I started to wonder if he might be right, if there wasn’t more to it than meets the eye – if, in fact, loneliness didn’t drive one to consider some of the larger questions of what it is to be alive.
There were things that burned away at me, not only as a private individual, but also as a citizen of our century, our pixellated age. What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty?
I was by no means the only person who’d puzzled over these questions. All kinds of writers, artists, film-makers and songwriters have explored the subject of loneliness, attempting to gain purchase on it, to tackle the issues that it provokes. But I was at the time beginning to fall in love with images, to find a solace in them I didn’t find elsewhere, and so I conducted the majority of my investigations within the visual realm. I sought out artists who seemed to articulate or be troubled by loneliness, particularly as it manifests in cities.
The obvious place to start was with Edward Hopper, that rangy, taciturn man. Born at the tail end of the 19th century, he spent his working life documenting life in the electrically uneasy metropolis. Though he was often resistant to the notion that loneliness was his metier, his central theme, his scenes of men and women in deserted cafes, offices and hotel lobbies remain signature images of urban isolation.
Hopper’s people are often alone, or in fraught, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress. But this isn’t the only reason his work is so deeply associated with loneliness. He also succeeds in capturing something of how it feels, by way of the strange construction of his city layouts.
Take Nighthawks, which the novelist Joyce Carol Oates once described as “our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness”. It shows a diner at night: an urban aquarium, a glass cell. Inside, in their livid yellow prison, are four figures. A spivvy couple, a counter-boy in a white uniform, and a man sitting with his back to the window, the open crescent of his jacket pocket the darkest point on the canvas. No one is talking. No one is looking at anyone else. Is the diner a refuge for the isolated, a place of succour, or does it serve to illustrate the disconnection that proliferates in cities? The painting’s brilliance derives from its instability, its refusal to commit.
I’d been looking at it on laptop screens for years before I finally saw it in person,at the Whitney one sweltering October afternoon. The colour hit me first. Green walls, green shadows falling in spikes and diamonds on the green sidewalk. There is no shade in existence that more powerfully communicates urban alienation than this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city of glass towers, empty illuminated offices and neon signs.
But it was the window that really stopped me in my tracks: a bubble of glass that separated the diner from the street, curving sinuously back against itself. It was impossible to gaze through into the luminous interior without experiencing a swift apprehension of loneliness, of how it might feel to be shut out, standing alone in the cooling air.
Glass is a persistent symbol of loneliness, and for good reason. Almost as soon as I arrived in the city, I had the sense that I was trapped behind glass. I couldn’t reach out or make contact, and at the same time I felt dangerously exposed, vulnerable to judgment, particularly in situations where being alone felt awkward or wrong, where I was surrounded by couples or groups.
This is what Hopper replicates with his strange architectural configurations: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with near-unbearable exposure. “I probably am a lonely one,” he once told an interviewer, and his paintings radiate an empathic understanding of what that’s like. You might think this would make his work distressing, but on the contrary I found it eased the burden of my own feelings. Someone else had grappled with loneliness, and had found beauty, even value in it.
Loneliness doesn’t only affect the solitary. It can also prey on people who have what seem like highly populated lives. This is the case with Andy Warhol, who was almost never without a glittering entourage and yet whose work is surprisingly eloquent on isolation and problems of attachment, issues he struggled with lifelong.
Warhol’s art patrols the space between people, conducting a grand philosophical investigation into closeness and distance, intimacy and estrangement. Like many lonely people, he was an inveterate hoarder, making and surrounding himself with objects, barriers against the demands of human intimacy. Terrified of physical contact, he rarely left the house without an armoury of cameras and tape recorders, using them to broker and buffer interactions: behaviour that has light to shed on how we deploy technology in our own century of so-called connectivity.
Even as a little boy, Warhol was notable for his skill at drawing and his painful shyness: a pale, slightly otherworldly child, who fantasised about renaming himself Andy Morningstar. His parents were Ruthenian immigrants, and he was passionately close to his mother, particularly when at the age of seven he contracted rheumatic fever, followed by St Vitus’s Dance, an alarming disorder characterised by involuntary movements of the limbs.
This spell of social withdrawal left its mark, as did the experience of being betrayed by his own body. As an adult, Warhol was hampered by an absolute belief in his own physical abhorrence: his bulbous nose and receding hair; his strikingly white skin, covered in liver-coloured blotches. What he most wanted was to be desired by one of the beautiful boys on whom he developed serial crushes, a breed exemplified by the poised and wickedly glamorous Truman Capote – who described his suitor cruelly as “a hopeless born loser, the loneliest, most friendless person I’d ever met in my life”.
In the 1960s, just as he was making a name for himself as a Pop artist, Warhol found a novel way of handling his problems with intimacy. He bought a television at Macy’s: an RCA 19-inch black-and-white set. Able to conjure or dismiss company at the touch of a button, he found he cared much less about getting close to other people, a process he’d found so hurtful in the past.
It was the beginning of a passionate affair with machines. Over the years, he fell for a range of devices, from the stationary 16mm Bolex on which he recorded theScreen Tests of the 1960s to the Polaroid camera that was his permanent companion at parties in the 1980s. Part of the appeal was undoubtedly having something to hide behind in public. Acting as servant or companion to the machine was another route to invisibility, a mask-cum-prop like his wig and glasses.
But Warhol also used machines to buffer his interactions with other people. Filming, taping and photographing meant he could possess people without risk: a strategy of enormous appeal to the lonely, who fear rejection almost as intensely as they desire intimacy.
In this, as in so many things, he was the herald of our own era. His attachment prefigures our rapturous, narcissistic fixation with phones and computers; the enormous devolution of our emotional and practical lives to technological apparatuses of one kind or another. I understood exactly why he called his tape recorder his wife. I would have been lost without my MacBook, which promised to bring connection and in the meantime filled the vacuum left by love.
Loneliness can wed people to machines, and it can also drive them away from the world. The lonely disappear in plain sight, retreating into their apartments because of sickness or bereavement, mental illness or the persistent, unbearable burden of shyness, of not knowing how to impress themselves into society.
If anyone can be said to have worked from this place, it’s the outsider artist and hospital janitor Henry Darger, who was born in Chicago in 1892. Darger’s life illuminates the social forces that produce isolation – and the way the imagination can work to resist it.
For decades Darger lived alone in a boarding house room crammed with hoarded rubbish. In 1972 he became ill and was moved unwillingly to a Catholic mission. When his room was cleared, it was discovered to contain hundreds of paintings, of almost supernatural radiance.
These baffling, beautiful collages were populated by soldiers and naked little girls with penises. Some had charming, fairytale elements: clouds with faces and winged creatures sporting in the sky. Others showed exquisitely staged and coloured scenes of mass torture, complete with delicately painted pools of scarlet blood. Together, they described a coherent otherworld: the Realms of the Unreal, site of a devastating civil war between forces of good and evil.
Since his death, theories about Darger have proliferated, put forward by an impassioned chorus of art historians, academics and psychologists. These voices are by no means convergent, but speaking they have established Darger as an outsider artist nonpareil: untutored, compulsive and almost certainly mentally ill. Over the years, he’s been posthumously diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia and declared a paedophile or serial killer, an accusation that has proved enduring despite an absolute lack of evidence.
It seemed to me that this second act of Darger’s life compounded the isolation of the first. The things he made have served as lightning rods for other people’s fears and fantasies about isolation. But what this pathologising elides is the damage wreaked on individuals like Darger by society: the role that structures such as families, schools and jobs play in any person’s experience of isolation.
Like many lonely people, Darger’s childhood was full of shattered attachments and broken ties. His mother died when he was four. His father was too ill to care for him, and so he was sent to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, where extreme violence was common. After escaping, he worked in the city’s hospitals, where he spent nearly six decades rolling bandages and sweeping floors. Intelligent and talented, he was deprived of both love and an education, and in his entire life had only one friend.
He built the world of the Realms out of almost nothing, against extraordinary odds. I realised this most forcibly when I visited the recreation of his room in a Chicago museum. It was packed with art materials: pencil stubs made usable by being jammed into syringes; piles of children’s paints and crayons; broken elastic bands mended with tape. In all his life, Darger’s income never exceeded $3,000 a year, and yet he had accumulated these resources, painstakingly gathered from among the discards, the leavings of the city.
Why did he spend his life creating a universe of such violence and beauty? There is a theory that loneliness stems from a profound sense of disintegration, caused by just the kind of broken childhood Darger suffered. It’s a longing not just for love, but for integration, for wholeness. Now look again at Darger’s pictures: the unleashed forces of good and evil brought painstakingly together, into a single field, a single frame. Insane? I don’t think so. It’s the work of someone absolutely alone, struggling with all their might to make sense of suffering and disorder.
You can show what loneliness looks like, and you can also take up arms against it, making things that serve explicitly as communication devices against censorship and alienation. This was the driving motivation of David Wojnarowicz, a still under-known American artist and writer, whose courageous, extraordinary body of work did more than anything to release me from the feeling that in my solitude I was shamefully alone.
Like Darger, Wojnarowicz had a brutal childhood. As a small boy in the 1950s, he and his two siblings were kidnapped by their father, an abusive alcoholic who took them to live in the suburbs of New Jersey. The Universe of the Neatly Clipped Lawn, David called it – a place where physical and psychic violence against women and children could be carried out without repercussions.
By 15, he was turning $10 tricks in Times Square, and by 17 had left home entirely. He almost starved during his homeless years. Sometimes he was raped or drugged by the men who offered him money; sometimes he stayed in welfare hotels and derelict buildings, or with a group of transvestites by the Hudson River.
In 1973, he prised himself off the streets, though the legacy of shame and isolation never fully dispersed. He came out as gay, and felt immediately lighter, albeit acutely aware of the weight of antagonism stacked against him, the hatred lurking everywhere for a man who loved men and was not ashamed of the fact.
It was in this period that he began to make art. Photographs of a man in a paper mask of Arthur Rimbaud, wandering the meat markets and bus stations of New York. Lurid, intricate paintings that look like maps of some mythic realm. A film of a drag queen walking slowly into a lake; graffiti of burning houses and choking cows. Within a handful of years he became one of the stars of the 1980s East Village art scene, alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Nan Goldin.
What happened to him? Aids happened. In 1988 he was diagnosed with Aids, then a death sentence. His first reaction was intense loneliness, combined with absolute rage against the bigoted politicians who blocked funding and education, the public figures who called for people with Aids to be tattooed with their infection status or quarantined on islands. Stigmatisation: the cruel process by which society works to exclude people considered undesirable, whether because of race or poverty or illness or a thousand other factors.
Stigmatisation is yet another driver of loneliness, reducing a person from a human being to the bearer of something polluting or repulsive. Wojnarowicz’s response was to fight back, to resist the silencing and shaming he’d suffered from lifelong; and to do it not alone but in the company of others. In the plague years, he became involved with Act Up, a direct action group that fused art and resistance into an astonishingly potent force. There isn’t much to find inspiring about the Aids crisis, except the way that it was combated not by people contracting into couples or family groupings, but by communal direct action.
Wojnarowicz’s work had always been political. Even before Aids, he’d dealt with sexuality and difference: with what it’s like to live in a world that despises you, to be subject every single day to hatred and contempt, enacted not just by individuals but by the supposedly protective structures of society itself. Aids confirmed his suspicions. As he put it in his searing memoir, Close to the Knives: “My rage is really about the fact that when I was told that I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realise that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”
Act Up’s work undoubtedly drove improved treatment for people with Aids, but combination therapy came too late for Wojnarowicz. He died in 1992, at the age of 37, leaving behind a body of work of radical honesty. “I want to make somebody feel less alienated – that’s the most meaningful thing to me,” he once said. “We can all affect each other, by being open enough to make each other feel less alienated.”
That statement summed up precisely what his art meant to me. Nothing in my years of loneliness touched me as deeply as Wojnarowicz’s openness: his willingness to admit to failure or grief; to acknowledge desire, anger, pain; to be emotionally alive. His honesty was in itself a cure for loneliness, dissolving the sense of difference that comes when one believes one’s feelings or desires to be uniquely shameful. How had he responded to the sources of isolation in his own life? By speaking the truth, by making art, by building community, by engaging in political action, by refusing to be invisible.
The artists I encountered in the lonely city helped me not just to understand loneliness, but also to see the potential beauty in it, the way it drives creativity of all kinds. These days, I don’t think the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.
There is a gentrification that’s happening to cities, and there’s a gentrification that’s happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amid the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings – depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage – are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.
So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with being compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up wounds as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need constantly to inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed inside a unit of two, turned inward from the world at large?
I have been lonely, and no doubt I will be lonely again. There isn’t any shame in that. Loneliness is a special place, I’m certain of it: adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.
© Olivia Laing. This is an edited extract from The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, published by Canongate on 3 March (£16.99).
“La familia es la esperanza y la fortaleza de los niños”
Street art in Argentina
by artist Guri.
Photo by Guri.