Trouble in Paradise

On the 8th of November, Paradise went up in flames.  This small town in Northern California held about 28,000 people, many retirees on a fixed budget.  This was not a rich town.  The median household income was $41,000, 94% of the residents were white, and a third of the town was occupied by people who rented their homes.  Less than one-quarter of its residents had a four-year college degree.  In 2016, Donald Trump won Butte County by four percentage points.  It is fair to say that if Chico, the county’s liberal bastion, had not been included in the count, the margin would have been much higher.

I know all of this because my parents lived there.  They fled, like the rest of the town, on that windy rainless morning last month.  It took us three weeks to find out definitively that their house was absolutely obliterated.  Looking at the picture of the property, provided by CalFire, gave the same emotional punch as seeing an empty child’s swing in action or kicked over tricycle with wheels still turning.  All that remained amidst the rubble was half a chimney and a brick retaining wall that my father had built with his own hands, with skills learned from his father before him, a bricklayer by trade.  Everything else was ashes.

The fire that burned Paradise, the Camp Fire, was one of the worst in the state’s history, certainly the deadliest.  The combination of drought conditions and high winds, plus the peculiar geography of the place, located on a ridge that, during the fire operated as a chimney, made this a fast-moving and unusually destructive fire.  At its peak, it was burning a football field every three seconds.  There was seemingly little time between the announcement of a nearby fire and my Dad seeing flames in his backyard.  Thousands of people fled for their lives, 88 at last count not making it, some dying as they drove away or trying to leave their burning cars behind.  When it was over –  and it took weeks to contain the fire – almost 14,000 homes, approximately 95% of all the homes in Paradise, were turned to ash.

I will leave it to others to debate who is to blame for this particular fire.  We all know the bigger answer already.  Warmer climate, attributed to human extraction and use of fossil fuels, is just going to make fires like the one that destroyed Paradise more common.  We are literally setting the planet on fire, and I don’t see any solutions coming down the pike in my lifetime, certainly not in my parents’.

What I do want to address is our response to those in the fire’s destructive pathway.  During the recent gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests in France, over, of all things, a fuel tax (which would surely decrease the consumption of fossil fuels), graffiti went up all over Paris (you’ve got to admire the French their ability to build barricades and make protests look like protests).  One graffito read “la crise climatique est une guerre contre les pauvres – climate change is a war against the poor.’  I think whoever threw this one up was onto something important.

More than two weeks after the Camp Fire, about a thousand now-homeless people were still camped out in a Walmart parking lot.  I followed the story intently, and one of the things that most struck me about the situation was the total lack of services.  FEMA had no presence there.   Everything was by donation – Comcast provided a hot spot Wi-Fi, local food trucks gave out food, area residents donated clothes and toys.  In other words, people were huddling together and helping each other, with little to no state services.  After the rains came, all these people were displaced to various shelters around Chico.   But no one knew who gave the orders.  Now, more than a month later, FEMA still appears to have no plan on how to get the 28,000 people displaced by the fire into short-term or long-term housing.

Climate change may not be a plot against the working class, but we will definitely face the brunt of its first impacts.  We can take care of each other, as many private citizens seemed to be trying to do in Chico, or we can save ourselves first.  As Evan Osnos reported in one of the most sobering stories of the past two years, some of the wealthiest people in America are choosing the latter option.  These “doomsday preppers” stockpile weapons, build garrisons, buy property in New Zealand (as a form of “apocalypse insurance”), or make arrangements for getting off the planet entirely.  But we don’t need to follow Elon Musk here; we see it closer to home in the renting of private firefighters to save wealthy neighborhoods.  Or the building of a great big wall on our Southern border to keep the refugees of climate change at bay.

Right now, the fears of the wealthy class and the strategies of isolation it has adopted appear to have the upper hand in the shaping of our policy.  We’ve teargassed women and children seeking asylum.  We’ve set up detention camps for teenagers.  We’ve sent thousands of troops to the border.  Most Americans do not agree with these policies, although misleading stories in the media, presidential tweets, and fear itself can always swing people in the other direction.  Many of us were surprised when the Bundy family (Cliven and Ammon) came out this past week criticizing the administration’s border policies. The Bundys are well- known in my parts for their illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.  They are usually portrayed as right-wing libertarians who would happily roll back all federal protections of the environment.  The month-long armed occupation, which protested federal management and control of public land, ended with one death, several arrests, and little jail time for the organizers, sparking outrage among many on the Left.

Ammon Bundy said the presidential characterization of the migrant caravan was “fear-based, and frankly, based on selfishness.”  I think we have to agree with him.  However boneheaded and distasteful the Bundy-led occupation was, it was also a striking example of working-class solidarity.  This was very evident in the footage aired as part of the PBS documentary, No Man’s Land It is also a good reminder that allies can pop up in a number of different guises and places.

Climate change is real and it is affecting us now.  This is no longer news.  According to the most recent government report, “climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities.”  Climate change is a war against the poor.  One could argue that selfishness, greed, and capitalism have got us into this mess.  We may never be able to get out of it.  The human race may not be saved.  But how we choose to deal with its consequences, whether we let the rich build bunkers and fly to the moon, or we work together to protect, shelter, and welcome those hit first, well, that may decide whether we are worth saving at all.

Allison L. Hurst

Posted in Allison L. Hurst, Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

ABC Sitcom The Conners: The Struggle is Real

Life expectancy for Americans has fallen to an average of 78.6 years. This is a drop from the most recent estimates—indicating a downward trend that is virtually unheard of in Western countries. A report just released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls this “a disturbing result not seen in the US…since 1915 through 1918, which included World War I and a flu pandemic.” The report blames the downward trend on increases in opioid abuse, suicide, and diabetes.

Photo by Eric McCandless, ABC

So perhaps it is fitting that when ABC debuted The Conners, a spinoff from last year’s canceled Roseanne, the writers decided to kill off Roseanne Conner by having her succumb to an opioid addiction—an addiction so secret that even her husband, Dan (John Goodman) was shocked when his daughters started unearthing random bottles of pain pills around the house after Roseanne’s death.

The real life Roseanne Barr is still very much alive, as she reminded her fans when The Connors debuted in mid-October, tweeting, “I’m not dead, b*&%#es.” But it was a tweet last May that killed Barr’s tenure at ABC. She tweeted about President Obama’s close advisor, Valerie Jarrett: “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” At first Barr blamed the tweet on the sleep aid, Ambien, and then she claimed that didn’t know Jarrett was African American. Finally, she apologized: “to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans. I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me—my joke was in bad taste.” But the damage was done. ABC promptly canceled Roseanne, calling Barr’s tweet “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values.”

Sara Gilbert, who plays Roseanne’s daughter Darlene, and Goodman scrambled to find a way to keep the show alive. Indeed, the Roseanne reboot was Gilbert’s idea in the first place. They were also concerned about the ability of the hundreds of people employed by the sitcom, in front of and behind the camera, to keep their jobs.

Ironically, perhaps, some have argued that The Conners is just as good—and maybe even better—than Roseanne. The show was always an ensemble piece, and every actor associated with the reboot has remained. Even better, D.J.’s (Michal Fishman) African American wife, who last spring was off camera fighting in Afghanistan, is now back from the war (Maya Lynne Robinson), and there are delightful cameos by Johnny Galecki as Darlene’s ex-husband, Matthew Broderick as Jackie’s pompous Halloween date, and Jay R. Ferguson (Peggy’s bearded coworker from Mad Men!) as Darlene’s new boss at a tabloid newspaper.

Michael Schneider writing for Indiewire suggests that without the distraction of Roseanne Barr’s politics the show can go back to doing what it did so well in the 1990s: chronicling the woes of the working class. The Conners struggle with many problems familiar to working-class families: the grief from losing someone to opioid addiction, the additional loss of Roseanne’s income, alcoholism, being fired, being underemployed, being forced to work in crappy service industry jobs because nothing else is available, blue collar jobs that suck, dicey sexual situations in the workplace, and a threadbare house that is falling apart and which has to hold several generations because of finances. The Conners also face less class-specific problems of tween sexuality, teenage sex, divorce, religion, politics, and a multi-racial family.

One of the most interesting consequences of the Roseanne reboot, its subsequent cancellation, and its rebirth as The Conners is that television critics are talking about class on television. These discussions fall into two oddly contradictory threads. Some argue that television has never properly addressed class, arguing, as Pepi Lesteinya did in Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, that television has either long ignored, mocked, or derided the working class in its portrayals. The other thread, which seems to belie the first, is that in the good old days television represented the working class with love, but that now those days are gone.

The truth is more complicated than either of these claims.

First, working-class people have always been featured on network television in greater numbers than we have been able to see as scholars, in part because there are simply too many hours to count, watch, and apprehend. From my own research, I can assert that 1950s television was weird, heterogeneous, ethnically and racially diverse, full of working-class characters and themes, and ideologically diverse as well. While this is not a view in the scholarly mainstream, I have allies for this argument in the scholars who contributed to The Other Fifties: Interrogating Mid Century Icons, and, especially, Horace Newcomb’s chapter, “Meaningful Difference in 50s Television.”

Despite the seeming scarcity of working-class themed television comedies, many such shows have been at the center of a canon of the most watched and re-watched series in television history. The 1950s offered The Honeymooners and The Life of Riley, game shows like Queen for a Day, and variety shows featuring diverse casts such as The Milton Berle Show and The Red Skelton Show. The 1960s and 70s brought dozens of television series about public sector workers (nurses, teachers, cops, and fire fighters) and classics like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, and Laverne and Shirley. Don’t forget the longest running TV series in history, The Simpsons or more recent series such as Two Broke Girls and Superstore. Across these eras, working-class characters, working-class writers, and actors from working-class backgrounds have always been a core staple of the small screen. A quick visual for this comes from Vulture’s timeline of working class sitcoms on network television.

Despite all this attention to the working class, one thing is for sure: television is bad at class struggle. On rare occasions, such as with the 1990s drama WWII era Homefront (1991-1993), unions are portrayed with dignity and realism, but for the most part television either ignores or distorts class conflict. On the other hand, the most consistent theme of most working-class sitcoms, including The Conners, is that it is a struggle to be working class.

In an op-ed last week David Brooks mused about the decline in life expectancy for Americans, concluding that since the economy is currently going gangbusters, that the only thing that can explain the uptick in opioid deaths and suicides among working-class Americans is some strange brew of economics, philosophical rot, and moral decay. But Brooks is wrong. Whatever the GDP might indicate, the American economy has been in decline for working people for a long time—even more so since the financial collapse of 2008. There is no single state in the US in which a minimum wage job can afford a worker a two-bedroom apartment. Inequality is more pronounced than in any time in US history. African American poverty in the South is considered by the UN to be some of the worst anywhere in the world. And as Forbes magazine reported in August, the real economy isn’t booming.

For now The Conners remain on the air, with their lives and their dignity intact, if only just barely. I hope that ABC and its viewers will keep the show on the air long enough for us to keep talking about class and culture—and about class struggle. The struggle is real.

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is an Associate Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and author of Radio-Active: Advertising and Activism 1935-1947.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Class Prejudice and the Democrats’ Blue Wave?

Two days after the mid-term elections, The Washington Post published an analysis under the headline “These wealthy neighborhoods delivered Democrats the House majority.”  That headline is false in several different ways, but it is being repeated among a large group of the punditry because it fits into a class narrative that sees affluent, college-educated white people who live in suburbs as citadels of tolerant decency while white folks without bachelor’s degrees, wherever they live, are wall-to-wall racist and sexist xenophobes.

There is some evidence for that narrative, as whites without bachelor’s degrees (who in electoral analyses are called “the white working class”) are among President Trump’s strongest supporters.  According to nationally aggregated exit polls, they voted for Trump by 37 points in 2016 and for GOP House candidates by 24 points in 2018.  In contrast, “educated whites” gave Trump only a 3-point advantage in 2016 and then flipped to Democratic candidates by 8 points in 2018.

A significant section of the punditry, including many Clinton Democrats, have latched on to this phenomenon to argue that the whole ballgame for the Dems, in 2018’s blue wave and for 2020, is about winning traditionally Republican suburbs while ignoring what’s left of their traditional base in the white part of the working class.  An important political shift is happening in suburbs, where half of all voters live,  but it is only one part of what generated the blue wave, and these suburbs are much more diverse and complicated places than the punditry allows.

The Washington Post analysis, for example, focused on six suburban districts outside Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Richmond, and Washington, D.C., which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 while also sending Republicans to the House of Representatives.  All six, along with similar traditionally Republican suburban districts, flipped to Dems earlier this month.  These kinds of districts definitely played an important role in Democrats winning the House, and we should celebrate every country-club Republican who is outraged by Trump’s nationalist mendacity, racist dog whistles, old-fashioned male supremacy, or just plain crudeness.  But these districts are much more complicated than the “wealthy neighborhoods” contained within them, and most importantly, they are only one part of how the Democrats won the House.

Flips within the so-called white working class are proportionately more important.  First, while the GOP won among the white working class this year by 24 points, that is a substantial shift away from the 37-point advantage they gave Trump in 2016.  And because this group of whites represents 41% of all voters, compared with college-educated whites who make up only 31%, that 13-point shift produced some 6 million additional votes for Dem candidates versus the 4 million produced by the 11-point gain Dems achieved among the white middle class.  So unlike the widely cited pre-election prediction by Ronald Brownstein that the Dems’ blue wave would be an exclusively suburban tsunami, shifts toward the Dems among “poorly educated” whites were of greater importance than the shift in the metro suburbs.  In the exit polls, “non-whites,” including Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Others, were about 29% of voters and gave Dems an overwhelming 54-point advantage – both numbers just 1-point higher than in 2016.  As the core of the Democratic base, people of color provide the foundation for any Democratic victory, but the shifts among both kinds of whites in 2018 account for the flip of the House.

Second, along with the dozen or so suburban districts they flipped, Dems also flipped at least 14 House districts that cannot be characterized as “suburban,” let alone “wealthy.”  Nate Silver highlighted many of these as “Obama-Trump” districts because they went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.  There were 21 such districts, mostly in Rust Belt states where there are large proportions of white working-class voters – including 6 in New York, 3 each in Iowa and Minnesota, 2 each in Illinois and New Jersey, and one each in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  Democrats won 14 of them, and that is at least as important as the “wealthy suburban districts” D.C. pundits continue to focus on.

What’s more, even in the traditional Republican suburban districts The Post chose to highlight, wealthy voters were not obviously more flippy than middle-income voters in those districts; those with household incomes in the $50-75k range also “surged” for Dems in comparison to their Republican pasts.  Two-thirds of suburban residents do not have bachelor’s degrees, and the largest group is middle income, not affluent, let alone “wealthy.”  Much of this is apparent from the data The Post authors report and display in various graphics, but they consistently emphasize the role of “the wealthy,” whom they apparently define as households with more than $100k in annual incomes.  According to their own graphic, of the 29 House seats that had flipped to Dems by the time they were writing, only three came from what they define as “wealthy” districts.  What’s more, in the nationally aggregated polls, Democrats failed to gain House votes versus the 2016 Trump vote in only one income category – those with household incomes of more than $100k. The Post analysis is correct in saying that “suburban neighborhoods . . . are trending increasingly left,” but they are wrong to assume that suburbs are uniformly affluent and college educated (or white).

Worse, their analysis tells only one half of the story of the Dems’ 2018 blue wave, and the smaller half at that.  The 13-point shift away from Republicans by working-class whites is important even if it did not produce a majority for Dems nationwide.  The difference between Clinton winning about 30% of that group in 2016 and Obama winning 40% of it in 2008 and 2012 is the difference between Democrats holding power or not.

The exclusive focus on suburbs as if they are wall-to-wall white middle-class professionals, which the influential Ron Brownstein continues to champion post-election, supports a Democratic political strategy that wants to run against Trump’s offensive style and values rather than on a substantive economic-justice program that could move toward renewing the kind of multi-racial, cross-class coalition that was such an important part of the Democrats’ 2008 sweep of executive and legislative power.  In my view, that would be a horrendous strategic mistake.  But worse, and not unrelated, it continues a moral narrative, common among many Clinton Democrats, that implicitly and often very explicitly values people with bachelor’s degrees over those without.  That attitude, as much as any strategic choice, adds toxicity to our already toxic Trumpian environment.

Jack Metzgar

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Beyond the Caravan: Why We Must Protect Workers Covered by TPS

In recent weeks, President Trump has been warning of an “invasion” of a caravan of 3,000 Central Americans, mostly from Honduras, heading north towards the Mexico-U.S. border. In October, these immigrants set out on a journey of more than 2500 miles to seek asylum in the United States, fleeing violence, corruption, and poverty in their home countries.  In response to thousands of families, including babies and elders,  our government has deployed more than 5000 soldiers to the border in anticipation of their arrival.

All this attention on the border means that many have forgotten what is happening to immigrants who are already here, including more than 320,000 people who are threatened by the ending of Temporary Protected Status(TPS).  Congress created TPS as part of  the Immigration Act of 1990 to provide temporary immigration relief for members of countries facing ongoing armed conflict, natural disasters, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions. TPS allows beneficiaries to receive temporary relief from deportation, an Employment Authorization Document, and the possibility to travel abroad. TPS applies to people from 10 countries, including El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Nearly three decades later, many TPS recipients have been living in the United States for many years, but they still do not have a pathway to legal permanent resident status. Some TPS recipients, like those from El Salvador, have been renewing their status for more than 15 years.

TPS recipients are not just immigrants, they are also an important part of the U.S. workforce. The Center for Migration Studies reports that 81% to 88% of TPS recipients are working, predominately in construction, restaurants and other food industries, landscaping services, child day care services, and grocery stores. They are part of the American working class and an essential part of many local communities. Despite their economic contributions, Congress has not take any action to extend TPS or to provide recipients the opportunity to become permanent residents or citizen.

For the Trump administration, the solution is to end the TPS for citizens from the Caribbean and Central American countries that have suffered natural disasters or state sponsored terrorism. In May 2018, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen determined that the impact of natural disasters or political violence had lessened enough in some countries to warrant the suspension of TPS for their citizens. About 2500 Nicaraguans and 45,000 Haitians were ordered to leave by January and July 2019 respectively. In January 2018, the Trump administration cancelled protection for 200,000 Salvadorans, notifying them to depart by September 2019.

But some TPS recipients are facing deportation even sooner. For immigrants from Sudan, TPS was originally set to end November 2, but a court ruling focused on whether the end of TPS reflects racial bias on the part of the Trump administration ordered the program to remain in place for TPS recipients of Sudan, El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua until April 2,  2019. Once that extension expires, the President will  have the authority to terminate TPS based on the arbitrary recommendation of the State Department. If Trump continues to insist on ending TPS, hundreds of thousands of people will be required to return to countries they left years ago or face deportation.

Ending TPS will not only affect these immigrants, it will also have a devastating impact on the U.S. Most TPS recipients have been in the U.S. for many years. They have learned English, paid taxes, bought homes, made a life here. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, “A recent survey of Salvadoran and Honduran TPS holders demonstrates that they are active community members, with 29.7 percent of respondents reporting participation in a variety of organizations, including neighborhood and work associations, schools, and sports teams.”

Here in DC, we have an especially large community of TPS recipients from El Salvador – about  32,000 people. According to the Executive Director of the Central American Resource Center, Abel Nunez, about 20% of construction workers in this city have TPS. This means that many projects within the city would come to a halt if they were to lose their status and thus the work permits allowing them to work legally. Along with construction workers, D.C. would lose many of its restaurant and other food industry workers, landscapers, nannies, and employees at grocery stores. While Trump touts his anti-immigration stance as defending American jobs, ending TPS would cripple the U.S. economy by deporting workers who provide some of our most basic necessities.

Ending TPS would also further destabilize Central America as countries would face an influx of 195,000 Salvadorians and 57,000 Hondurans. These countries do not have the infrastructure to provide employment to so many returnees. According to the Inter-American Dialogue report,  Central America Migration: Current Changes and Development Implications, 70% of the labor force in El Salvador and 80% in Honduras are part of the informal economy. These economies also depend on remittances – money sent to family members in Central America from TPS recipients in the U.S.  According to the report, “Remittances alone amounted to $17 billion in 2015 and represented over 50% of household income in some 3.5 million households in the region.” Ending TPS will devastate Central American economies, which would in turn spur further migration out of these countries – including more people trying to enter the U.S. to find employment. If we want to stabilize Central America and reduce illegal immigration to the U.S., Congress should propose a bill that would grant a pathway for TPS recipients to remain in the country permanently.

Proposing such a bill would let Democrats show that they really stand behind immigrants. As Democrats prepare to take control of the House, I hope they will include plans to provide permanent protection for TPS Recipients on their agenda. Winning protection for TPS recipients will also create an opportunity for the immigrant rights community to advocate for other working families and make clear how immigrant workers contribute not only to the economy but also to American communities. To make this happen, we all need to get informed, to support organizations that focus on TPS, and finally make sure that Democrats in Congress don’t get distracted from TPS by the Republican anti-immigrant fear campaign.

Juan L. Belman Guerrero

Juan L. Belman Guerrero is a DACA recipient who is the Program Manager at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. He has organized in Austin, Texas with the University Leadership Initiative and is originally from Juventino Rosas, Guanajuato, Mexico.

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Veterans’ Healthcare: A Workers’ Comp System That Actually Works

Most American workers who get injured on the job or develop an occupational disease soon become familiar with the inadequacies and injustices of our fifty state system of workers’ comp. Private employers fight their claims. Rehabilitation services are fragmented and managed by private insurers. If they’re unable to work and lose their original job-based health coverage, even workers who’ve been  approved for treatment for specific work-related injuries or illnesses can’t pay their other medical bills. .

The situation is very different for the nine million men and women who qualify for medical benefits from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). The VHA—much under attack these days by President Trump and Republicans in Congress–functions as a federal workers’ comp system for former members of the military with service-related ailments. While vets’ medical problems are not always recognized as quickly as they should be, once a vet is in the VHA system, any single malady of the mind or body makes them eligible for any other kind of treatment they need in the future–from hip replacements to cancer surgery or hospice care.

Eligible veterans end up on an island of socialized medicine within our larger for-profit healthcare industry. Like residents of the UK covered by the National Health Service, VHA patients gain access to an integrated network of public hospitals and clinics, employing doctors, nurses, and therapists who are salaried not paid on a “fee for service” basis. About a third of the VHA’s 300,000 staff members are veterans themselves, which helps create a unique culture of solidarity between patients and providers that has no counter-part in U.S. private sector medicine.

The VHA has a predominantly poor and working-class patient population because that’s who enlists in our professional armed forces these days. But military work also exposes non-combat veterans to injuries or illnesses like those suffered by millions of civilians in blue-collar jobs. As Rick Weidman from Vietnam Veterans of America explains, “the military is a collection of very dangerous occupations.”

For example, the most common complaint of VHA patients is hearing loss and tinnitus. That’s because almost every branch of the military exposes enlisted men and women to high levels of noise. In the Air Force and Navy, there’s the constant roar of jet engines. In the Navy, there’s the metallic clanking that rebounds through the echo chamber of a submarine or other naval vessel. You don’t have to deployed to the Middle East to be deafened by explosions from improvised explosive devices (IED’s) or the U.S. military’s own ordinance. Just going through basic training can be enough to insure diminished hearing capacity later in life. Similarly, infantry training leads to musculoskeletal problems because it involves hauling around 60- to 100-pound packs that place an excessive burden on necks, shoulders, knees, backs and ankles.

Veterans also bring signature issues from particular eras. In Vietnam, draftees and enlisted men were exposed to Agent Orange. Other Cold-war era soldiers and sailors found themselves involved in chemical warfare agent experiments, nuclear weapons testing, and base cleanups with little personal protection. Troops sent to liberate Kuwait came back with symptoms of “Gulf War Syndrome.” Veterans of multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan were often exposed to lung damaging and cancer causing toxic burn pits. Insurgent use of IEDs in those two countries has led the VHA to become a leading center of research on and treatment of traumatic brain injuries suffered by thousands of troops (and professional football players as well, who now arrange to have their brains sent to the VHA for post-mortem verification of their condition).

Combat veterans often suffer from mental health issues, like PTSD. In researching a new book called Wounds of War, I spoke with men in their eighties or nineties whose searing memories of death and destruction in Germany, Japan, or Korea still disturbed their sleep at night. Veterans who suffer from mental and behavioral health problems—whether acquired in or exacerbated by military service— are more prone to substance abuse, particularly opioid use if chronic pain is involved. They also become a bigger suicide risk. An estimated 20 veterans a day kill themselves, although three-quarters of those have never been to the VHA for treatment. Between 2006 and 2015, the number of veterans receiving specialized mental health care at the VHA rose from 900,000 annually to 1.6 million, a reflection of continuing collateral damage from open-ended foreign wars.

VHA caregivers are trained to identify and treat these very specific wounds of war.  Every VHA employee gets training in how to better recognize and assist patients who are suicidal. Thousands of VHA mental health providers are taught the latest evidence-based treatments for PTSD. (Outside the VHA, only 30% of private sector providers use such treatments).  And primary care providers and specialists alike recognize the kind of diseases produced by toxic exposures, such as Agent Orange related diabetes or burn-pit created respiratory problems.

The VHA ranks with Kaiser Permanente as one of the most heavily unionized health care systems in the country; the American Federation of Government Employees, National Nurses United, and the Service Employees International Union have more than 120,000 members serving veterans. Thanks to this union role, management pays more attention to the kinds of occupational hazards that are rampant in health care work generally, particularly in non-union hospitals. The VHA was the first – and may be one of the only U.S. healthcare systems – to install the kind of lift equipment that helps nursing staff avoid debilitating and often career ending back, neck and shoulder injuries.

Due to the mental health problems of some of its patients, the VHA goes to great lengths to insure a safe workplace for health care providers. In Northern California, VHA staff labor under the shadow of what happened at The Pathway Home, a private not-for-profit program housed at a state run veterans’ facility in Yountville, last March. Three professional caregivers – one a current and another a former VHA employee –were shot and killed by a vet who then committed suicide.

The VHA is far from perfect. As even its defenders note, veterans’ health care could be far more comprehensive and effective than it is. Unfortunately, both Congress and recent presidents have made it harder for VHA to care for veterans. Congress has allowed the Department of Defense to give hundreds of thousands of veterans other than honorable discharges, making them ineligible for VHA care. In some cases, soldiers have been discharged for active duty misconduct related to PTSD or brain injuries – yet they have a particular need for coverage.  Congress has also consistently underfunded and understaffed the Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA). This is the separate agency that determines whether a veteran has actually suffered from an occupational illness or injury—and to what degree of disability.  As a result, there are far too many eligibility determination delays before veterans become VHA patients.

Under the Trump administration, the VHA faces even greater challenges. Earlier this year, Congress – with the support of a majority of Democrats — passed the VA MISSION Act, which  will siphon billions of dollars away from the VHA’s budget and direct that money toward private doctors and hospitals that are often ill-prepared to treat veterans.  As the VHA is starved of needed funding, health care providers will be laid off (there are already an estimated 49,000 existing staff vacancies) and facilities will close. That will undermine the quality of patient care, and Republicans (with support from the Koch-funded Concerned Veterans for America) and their Democratic Party enablers will use that to make the case for total privatization of the system.  Their aim is to starve the system so that care and services will decline even more. Those who oppose Medicare for All would then use the VHA as a poster child for the “failure” of single payer models, instead of a shining example of how they work better.

Fortunately, members of veterans’ organizations, union-represented VHA staff, and community allies around the country are fighting vigorously against VHA privatization. And given voters’ concerns about health care, Democrats could use the threat to the VHA as a “wedge issue” against the right wing. If more Democrats would embrace this cause, they might actually win back voters from military families who believed that Trump would defend veterans and their health care.  The fight to save the VHA from the profiteers will help protect a model of healthcare from which all Americans benefit.

Suzanne Gordon

Suzanne Gordon co-authored a 2017 report on veterans’ health care for the American Legion called “A System Worth Saving.”  She is the author, most recently, of Wounds of War: How The VA Delivers Health Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans, from Cornell University Press. She will be speaking about the book around the country over the next month. She is also a Senior Policy Analyst at the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute. She can be reached at

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Politicizing Immigration Wears Thin in Iowa

For weeks during the summer of 2018, the case of a missing University of Iowa student occupied statewide and national attention. Mollie Tibbetts, 20, who was housesitting in Brooklyn, Iowa (population 1,391), went jogging at night on July 18 and disappeared. On August 21, police identified Tibbett’s alleged killer, who led them to her body in a cornfield. The news story may have ended there, except for one fact: the man charged with her murder was a 24-year-old immigrant from Mexico, alleged to have entered the U.S. illegally.

Those who have followed the politics of immigration could anticipate what would happen next. As POLITICO reported, “within hours, the tragedy emerged as a polarizing wedge issue — just in time for the fall campaign homestretch.” Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds — campaigning to win a full term — tweeted hints of a new political strategy: “We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can bring justice to Mollie’s killer.” Iowa’s two Republican U.S. Senators, Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley, also linked the murder to the immigration system, echoing Reynolds’s position.

That evening, President Donald Trump furthered the provocation at a rally in West Virginia: “You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman.” The next day, the White House ramped up the message with the release of a video compilation of families victimized by violence from undocumented immigrants. A tweet accompanying the video said “The Tibbetts family has been permanently separated. They are not alone.” The phrase  “permanently separated” contrasted this family’s story with the presumably less-permanent separations of thousands of immigrant children from their parents at the southern U.S. border.

But as the Republicans prepared to ride a red wave to the November elections on immigration scare tactics, something unexpected happened. The Tibbetts family rejected the politicization of Mollie’s death, as several family members made clear in social media. On August 21, Tibbetts’ aunt posted a message defending immigrants against a wholesale attack: “Our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship and support throughout this entire ordeal by friends from all different nations and races.” Tibbetts’ second cousin pushed back at a conservative commentator on Twitter: “hey i’m a member of mollie’s family and we are not so fucking small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals.” Another cousin wrote “You do not get to use her murder to inaccurately promote your ‘permanently separated’ hyperbole.” Finally, on September 1, Rob Tibbetts, Mollie’s father, responded with a guest column in the Des Moines Register: “The person who is accused of taking Mollie’s life is no more a reflection of the Hispanic community as white supremacists are of all white people. To suggest otherwise is a lie.”

This story offers several lessons about the politics of demonizing immigrants, the uncertain allegiance of rural voters to Trump, and the role of immigrants in the rural economy. First, a family in mourning who takes a stand for fairness and charity despite their loss is a powerful moral force in a news story, and defying their wishes crosses a line of decency. After the Tibbetts family spoke out, Iowa’s GOP quickly dropped the demonization of immigrants political strategy, at least for this election cycle. The issue does not appear on Reynolds’s campaign website, and she didn’t mention it in any of the three gubernatorial debates. A reporter brought it up in the final debate, asking Reynolds if she had any regrets regarding her comments, which were “chastised for coming off as political, too soon in the grieving process.” She responded “this isn’t about politics, it’s about policy.” Her challenger, Fred Hubbell, replied “the governor’s statement was completely political. . . . matter of fact, that’s exactly what the Mollie Tibbetts family said, ‘let’s not politicize this.’” So a residue remains on Reynolds for trying to exploit Tibbetts’ death for political advantage.

Second, this case reminds us that “pivot” counties can pivot again. Poweshiek County, where Brooklyn, Iowa is located, is one of the 31 pivot counties in Iowa that voted for Obama twice and flipped to Trump in 2016. The push back on Trump’s immigration rhetoric in the Tibbetts case suggests that he has no lock on pivot counties. Iowans could easily pivot back to support a Democrat who offered something better than two years of “build a wall” and disparaging brown and black people.

Third, immigration is both an economic and a social issue. The alleged murderer had worked for at least four years at Yarrabee Farms, a dairy farm, and he lived in a trailer owned by one of his employers, Craig Lang, a high-profile Republican. The Lang family said they screened the man when they hired him but now realized they didn’t use the more robust E-Verify system. Although Yarrabee Farms received threatening messages after the identity of the alleged murderer broke, few people in Iowa were calling for more immigration restrictions after this case, perhaps because they understand the importance of immigrant labor to the state’s economy. In fact, with Iowa’s unemployment rate at 2.5 percent in September, it would be hard to argue that immigrants were “stealing” native-born Americans’ jobs. The problem of low, stagnant wages is one Trump has yet to address, but it suggests that his anti-immigrant policy is not a solution for stark inequalities for the working class in the economy.

Instead, the President’s immigration policy increasingly adds up to a long list of problems. Not only is his stance based on a lie — immigrants actually have a lower crime rate than native-born citizens — it is also unethical, as the border separation policy illustrates. Further,  the Des Moines Register pointed out that Trump’s policy has hurt tourism, caused foreign student enrollment at Iowa’s public universities to drop by 20 percent, and undermined economic growth in all of Iowa by preventing needed workforce expansion.

But that hasn’t stopped him from demonizing immigrants as the midterm elections near, stoking fears about a horde of Central American immigrants walking toward the U.S. border. Will these fearmongering messages work? Or will some pivot counties pivot back? We’ll find out next week.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is author of the forthcoming No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (Cornell University Press). He is professor of Communication Studies and Digital Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa.



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Red State, White Evangelicals, and a Blue Wave?

Voter registration at the University of North Texas. Photo from the Dallas Morning News.

Eyes are locked on Texas. And deep in its heart are white evangelicals who could be part of a blue wave many hope will wash over that red state to carry Ted Cruz far out to sea.  In tight race between Cruz and his energetic Democratic Party opponent Beto O’Rourke, New York Times reporter Elizabeth Dias suggests that white evangelical women could be open to Democratic candidates. Her interviews with long-time Republican voters point to an increasing disenchantment that could temper the unwavering evangelical support that Republican incumbents and candidates view as their inalienable birthright.

White evangelical women from Texas, Dias explains, are not poised en masse to bolt from the Republican Party. But Trump’s leadership has down-ticket implications even for Cruz, his bitter opponent in 2016. In this competitive U.S. Senate race, even a slightly depressed turnout among the Republican base combined with a healthy number of party-switching voters could make a decisive difference. The evangelical women whom Diaz interviewed see a “stark moral contrast” between Trump and O’Rourke. They view  Trump’s policies and behavior, including banning Muslim refugees, separating children from their parents at the border, and Trump’s disrespect of women, as  “fundamentally anti-Christian. ”. When an older white evangelical man said to one of Diaz’s interviewees, Tess Clarke, that she couldn’t be a Christian and vote for O’Rourke, Clarke responded:  “I keep going back to who Jesus was when he walked on earth. This is about proximity to people in pain.”

These faint stirrings of discontent among white evangelical women in Texas are connected to larger questions about class and theology.  If Jesus really was close to people in pain and suffering in his peripatetic ministry, the transformative possibilities of following that Jesus are revolutionary.  Such a Jesus is a human Jesus with whom people can identify. He is also one who cares about the hidden and open injuries of class. For those who suffer with those wounds, the gospel offers the prospect of solidarity and its active healing ministry.

The codependent relationship between white evangelicals and the Republican Party has the whiff of eternal truth to it. But it has not always been so. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was established in 1942 as an effort to gain influence in Washington, D.C. The NAE invited individual churches, whole denominations, and pastors to join in united action to represent evangelicals to a country still dominated by mainline Protestants. What the NAE wanted most of all, though, was to have a freer voice over the radio waves to spread the gospel. The Christian Right had not yet emerged, Moral Majority was two generations in the future, and evangelicals had not yet sold their soul to the Republican Party.

Leading evangelical theologians in the generation after World War II, notably C.F.H. Henry, warned about the dangers of imbuing any economic system or political system with divine authority. Instead, in the spirit of evangelical independence based on a God who transcends all human endeavors, he urged that evangelicals should always remember that earthly economic or political institutions are under the authority of the gospel not the other way around. So the nearly complete alignment between evangelicals and the Republican Party in our time would have deeply alarmed Henry and many evangelical leaders of that era.

Now, however, some evangelicals seem to be waking up to the nightmare of a deeply unevangelical sell-out of the Kingdom of God for a gaudy, earthly imitation. A closed-door consultation of around fifty evangelical leaders convened at Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater, and often called the evangelical’s Harvard) in April to deal with concerns about the future of evangelicalism and concerns that “their movement has become too closely associated with President Trump’s polarizing politics.” According to Katelyn Beaty, editor at large for Christianity Today, the meeting was an attempt to sort out their alliance with Trump and to be engaged in “self-reflection on the current condition of Evangelicalism.”

Contrary to any hopes raised by even the scant possibility of evangelicals looking for a balm in Gilead outside of the Republican Party, we’re not likely to see evangelicals running to join the Democratic Party. What I’d really like to see are evangelicals who follow the Jesus they claim to know as he walks close to people in their pain and their powerlessness. Jesus the Savior meets Jesus the prophet of social change.  If evangelicals followed this Jesus, as  Tess Clarke suggests, they would be in a position to challenge both Republicans and Democrats when their politics and their policies favor elites who want to preserve power and status. This would be a major theological challenge, and in Texas, at least, it is coming from white evangelical women who are lightyears ahead of their own leadership.

Evangelicals make a particular point of adhering to the Chalcedonian formulation from 451 AD that affirmed Jesus is “truly God and truly man.” Despite the evangelical commitment to this major creed of the Church, they still emphasize his divinity to the neglect of his humanity. Sometimes it seems that they love Paul more than Jesus. It was Paul, after all, in his letter to the Galatians who argued “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Paul underlines the power of Jesus Christ to overcome all human divisions so that a universal human family is possible through faith in Christ.

But many evangelicals have relied on Paul’s teaching about being “one in Christ Jesus” to avoid the sharper divisions that Jesus drew. They shrink from a gospel that cuts against the grain call out the well-heeled on behalf of those who are down-at-the-heels. As Jesus emphasized in his discussion with the rich young man who sought the Kingdom of Heaven, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:21-23). Granted, it is not impossible, but it is hard.

The power of the gospel that evangelicals teach has been diminished by their own sense of limitation and fear – the limits they place on a God they believe to be omnipotent based on a fear that God can’t or won’t act in human history without help from the GOP. Yet when evangelicals return to Jesus and consider the multitude of possibilities inherent in concrete and tangible ministries with those in pain, as some brave souls are doing in Texas, then they start to do the unexpected. Beto O’Rourke is but the smallest beginning. A new generation of evangelicals is emerging. Who can wager what they might do when a gospel informed by compassion and care replaces the one now chained to party and platform?

Ken Estey

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