Author: Craig Axford

I'm a US citizen, but for most of the past decade I've been living in British Columbia, Canada. I have degrees in both anthropology and environmental studies from the University of Victoria. I am currently working on a master's degree in environmental management at Royal Roads University. I've been a Green Party candidate for the US Congress as well as an organizer for the DNC. I've also served as the program director for a local non-profit environmental group.

Equivocation Is As Good As Support To An Aspiring Tyrant

By Craig Axford | United States

Everyone wants to believe their country isn’t headed over the abyss. For Americans in particular, it is an article of faith that the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution are strong enough to prevent a demagogue from becoming a tyrant.

This faith that the founding fathers anticipated the temptation for leaders to abuse their authority, and adequately guarded against it, has ironically lulled many Americans into a false sense of security. Often we equivocate when we react to rhetoric attacking particular groups or government institutions, reassured by the comforting belief that our system was designed to withstand this kind of abuse.

We’ve seen this sort of behavior in electorates before. In his short treatise entitled On Tyranny, the historian Timothy Snyder quoted at length from an editorial published in a German Jewish newspaper shortly after the election of Adolf Hitler:

We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in [Nazi newspapers]; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because a number of crucial factors hold powers in check. . . and they clearly do not want to go down that road. When one acts as a European power, the whole atmosphere tends towards ethical reflection upon one’s better self and away from revisiting one’s earlier oppositional posture.

This rosy assessment of the “check” woven into the fabric of German government and society turned out to be as inaccurate as the following years were tragic.

The quotation from the Jewish newspaper provided above also contains between its lines another assumption people within democratic societies often make. When it comes to our politicians we expect their rhetoric, to at least some degree, to be calculated to appeal to various constituencies. In other words, we think they are just telling certain people what they want to hear in order to get votes. Of course, we usually assume that with us our preferred candidate is being sincere.

Statements that make us uneasy or with which we disagree, however, are either ignored or rationalized as bones thrown to groups that must be won over to win the election. Once in office, we tell ourselves, the candidate will back off and the process of making law will dilute the more toxic proposals advocated on the campaign trail. But, as Germany’s Jewish population learned too late, Hitler and his followers meant every word.

While many prominent and smart German Jews comforted themselves with the false belief that Hitler was equivocating, many of the non-Jewish Germans that went to the polls to vote for him were undoubtedly equivocators. You know the type, or perhaps even are the type. These equivocators say they oppose the racism yelled from the dais, but they think the demagogue spewing it will be good for the economy or will nominate the kind of judges he/she supports to the bench, and so forth. Hitler surely welcomed their support in the election of 1932, just as Trump surely did in 2016. The vote of an equivocator counts just as much as that of a true believer.

After the election of 2016 equivocation became a bipartisan exercise. Republicans who had opposed Trump in the primaries, or even after he received their party’s nomination, and Democrats who had issued the starkest warnings about the consequences of electing him lined up in front of TV cameras and microphones to tell everyone that they wanted the new president to “succeed.” Under the twisted logic that conflates blind loyalty and patriotism, a president’s success equals America’s success, even if that president’s agenda threatens our most cherished institutions. No politician ever wants to seem unpatriotic.

But the success of the country is contingent upon the leadership putting the country’s interest first and foremost. Traditionally, both major parties have been led by people that believed in the process even if they disagreed about how best to use it to achieve maximum benefit for the nation as a whole. Now we have a leader that embraces disruption for its own sake. His entire presidency has been dedicated to eroding the last vestiges of faith Americans still have in their institutions in order to better exploit the office of the presidency for his personal gain. From the very beginning of his administration, no one should have been wishing him success.

The progressive activist Jim Hightower once said, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos,” a line that later became the title for one of his books. It’s not impolite or unpatriotic to argue forcefully on behalf of the principles and institutions that have enabled the developed democracies of the world to make it this far. No country or institution is perfect, of course, but Donald Trump and his most strident supporters would take advantage of every mistake and weakness to destroy them rather than improve them.

 When the executive branch is exploiting its legal discretion to separate immigrant parents from their children, there’s only one side of the debate standing on firm ethical ground. When a leader dismisses the broad scientific consensus regarding climate change, their point of view is disturbing, not a reason to reconsider our faith in science. When a candidate has been caught on tape bragging about assaulting women, we should be united in our collective disgust instead of rationalizing his comments as “locker room talk.” When a president who took an oath to uphold the Constitution questions the legitimacy of elections and calls the press “an enemy of the people,” we shouldn’t make excuses.

These are the words and actions of a man that must be contained until he can be removed from office. Of course, the Republic may survive this test of its mettle even if all the equivocators out there keep giving cover to the bigots, misogynists and aspiring oligarchs that are finding encouragement in the president’s rhetoric and policies. But can we really risk finding out too late that it was all just too much for our institutions to bear?

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The Epigenetics of America’s Immigration Policy

Craig Axford | United States

In a recent column written for The Guardian and republished here on Medium, the psychotherapist Yoka Verdoner recounts the trauma she and her siblings have had to live with their entire lives as a result of their separation from their parents during the Holocaust. In that case, the separation saved their lives, but that they were being placed in hiding with strangers for their own good didn’t prevent the psychological scars inflicted when children are taken from those they love.

In Yoka Verdoner’s case, she states she has struggled her entire life to establish a lasting loving relationship. In addition, her brother has had difficulty holding down jobs, and her sister suffered “from lifelong, profound depression.” Perhaps the commentators and guests typically featured on Fox News would dismiss Yoka and her brother and sister as “actors” and suggest they should simply “get over it,” but anyone making such comments has neither experienced the trauma that comes with families be forcibly separated nor the willingness, or perhaps even capacity, to place themselves in the shoes of a young child who is powerless to truly understand the circumstances, let alone meaningfully influence them.

It will be tempting, when the policy known as “zero tolerance” is finally ended, for the many good people now protesting outside of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, calling their representatives in Congress, and tirelessly tracking children that have been dispersed across the country to underestimate or forget the physical and emotional legacy of these crimes against humanity. The same will be true of the countless reporters now bringing much-needed attention to the crisis. We will thank god that children are resilient. They are, of course, but only up to a point. For hundreds if not thousands that point was yesterday, or weeks ago. For others, that point is right around the corner, we don’t yet know where they are, and the government is showing no signs of moving to reunite them with their family.

This morning the world awoke to the news that many of these migrant children are being drugged. There can be little question that soon stories will be regularly emerging of physical and sexual abuse. In the inevitable asymmetry that develops in the minds of those witnessing one greater outrage after another, those that get through this having endured only weeks or months of separation from those they love can come to be seen as “the lucky ones,” when in fact there is no one trapped in this web that has not been poisoned by the venom of the white nationalism that ultimately inspired this policy.

Whether these children end up returning to their countries of birth or somehow find a way to remain in the United States, they together with the society they live in will end up paying dearly. This trauma has already literally imprinted itself upon their genes. Starting about a decade from now the youngest and most vulnerable among them will begin to have children, and they too will unconsciously carry some portion of the molecular record of the events of the spring and summer of 2018. Donald Trump’s legacy is now literally being written into the DNA of thousands of children. Their genes will be expressing the scars inflicted by his racism long after he has been dead and buried.

“Our study indicates that we inherit more than just genes from our parents. It seems to be that we also get a fine-tuned as well as important gene regulation machinery that can be influenced by our environment and individual lifestyle.” That was the conclusion of researcher Nicola Iovino with the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg, Germany following a study into the impacts of lifestyle, diet, disease and other environmental factors at the molecular level. Iovino concluded, “These insights can provide new ground for the observation that at least in some cases acquired environmental adaptations can be passed over the germ line to our offspring.

Other recent studies have found that simply holding and comforting a child influences gene expression in positive ways. In a study published in 2017 by a team working out of The University of British Columbia, scientists found that “The children who experienced higher distress and received relatively little contact had an ‘epigenetic age’ that was lower than would be expected, given their actual age. Such a discrepancy has been linked to poor health in several [other] recent studies.”

That the regular receipt of physical comfort, particularly from a familiar source, has a positive physical as well as emotional impact shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But our understanding of the profoundness of these impacts at the molecular level is new. Our awareness that these impacts survive for at least one or two generations is even more recent.

Many of the children now in government custody will experience far greater difficulties as adults because of what America has done. In addition to increased risk of disease, more of them than otherwise would have will struggle in relationships, holding down jobs, or develop drug problems. There will be demagogues in the future that will undoubtedly use the consequences of the trauma imposed by Trump and his collaborators as evidence that “these people” are inferior or a threat to society, just as they are doing now. They will claim history should repeat itself on those grounds. The longer the current “zero tolerance” policy continues, the larger the population of troubled youth and adults societies across North and Central America will have to deal with.

Those arguing this is necessary on economic grounds will consistently ignore or deny the hundreds of billions in social costs that will follow from what’s currently happening at the border. They will likewise deny that by returning to them damaged youth that will now be even more susceptible to recruitment into the gangs their parents were fleeing “zero tolerance” further destabilizes the countries migrants are trying to escape. They will continue to claim that the richest nation on earth simply cannot afford to be humane. But the truth is we cannot afford not to be. The sooner we realize human rights is an investment in our collective biological and emotional future rather than a cross we must bear, the better off we’ll be.

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Proposed Changes to America’s Nuclear Policy Means Congress Needs to Act

By Craig Axford | United States

During his first term, President George W. Bush flirted with the idea of adding lower yield tactical atomic weapons to America’s nuclear arsenal. These so-called “bunker busters” were supposedly needed to take out hardened sites that conventional weapons couldn’t, though they might also be used to attack an enemy’s conventional forces or other strategic sites. They were pitched as a kind of safer nuclear bomb that came without the large-scale civilian casualties and associated fallout of their more powerful and less discriminating predecessors.

The development of these new “tactical nukes” likely would have required Bush 43 to reverse a nuclear testing moratorium signed into law during his father’s presidency, a moratorium that was later extended by President Bill Clinton. Now, under President Trump, it appears the tactical nuclear weapon idea has resurfaced, raising yet again the possibility of renewed nuclear testing.

When Bush 43 began toying with the concept of tactical nukes I was serving as co-chair of the Utah Democratic Progressive Caucus with my friend and colleague Laura Bonham. Together Laura and I approached Congressman Jim Matheson, who has since left office, with the idea of introducing legislation requiring that any renewal of nuclear testing go through the same kind of environmental review the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates for many other proposed federal projects. Among other things, NEPA requires the preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluates both the direct and cumulative effects of the proposed action when significant consequences may result. This EIS is put out for public review and comment that must then be responded to by the lead agency, which in the case of nuclear testing would be the US Department of Energy. Any decision to move forward by the agency would then be subject to administrative appeal and, if necessary, judicial review.

Congressman Matheson responded promptly with the introduction of the Safety for Americans from Nuclear Weapons Testing Act (SANWTA). The bill deemed any resumption of nuclear testing “to be a major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment for which a separate detailed environmental impact statement is required under section 102(2)( c) of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4332).” Later, in 2009, this same bill was introduced in the United States Senate by former Republican Senator Bob Bennett.

That nuclear testing has a major impact on “the quality of the human environment” can hardly be contested. Downwinder is the term commonly used to describe a person exposed to nuclear fallout. Though often thought to refer only to those living in the communities nearest the test site, particularly in southern Utah where exposure to radioactive fallout was most extreme, in truth most Americans living through the 1950s and early 60s qualify as downwinders to at least some degree. Atmospheric testing between the years of 1951–1963 spread radiation originating at the Nevada Test Site like blood splatter across the United States. The map provided at the top of this article shows just how extensive exposure to fallout from more than one nuclear test was during that period.

Downwinders, meaning those people, individuals, communities that were downwind of the nuclear test site. During those years when we were testing atomic bombs above ground, when we watched them for entertainment from the roofs of our high schools, little did we know what was raining down on us, little did we know what would appear years later. ~Terry Tempest Williams

Even with the end of atmospheric nuclear testing following the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, underground tests continued posing a significant risk to public health and the environment. Though far more contained than earlier tests, radiation still leaked into the atmosphere and the possibility of major releases remained.

Baneberry Underground Nuclear Test, December 18, 1970. CTBTO.org

On December 18, 1970, the US conducted the Baneberry Nuclear Test. This underground test failed catastrophically, blasting radioactive dust thousands of feet into the atmosphere. According to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) account of the Baneberry Test, “For the first time since the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) had driven nuclear testing underground in 1963, a nuclear testing cloud could be observed as far away as Las Vegas, 120 kilometres from the test site.” The CTBTO adds that “According to a report by the National Cancer Institute, Baneberry released 80,000 curies of radioactive iodine-131 into the atmosphere — more than any other U.S. underground nuclear test and comparable to a smaller atmospheric nuclear test. The radioactive dust reached a height of around three kilometers, from where it was carried by winds into several adjacent U.S. states.”

By passing the Safety for Americans from Nuclear Weapons Act, Congress would be sending a powerful message to President Trump and future administrations that the resumption of nuclear testing will not go unnoticed or unchallenged by the American public. However, a far more significant step would be ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would negate the need for strenuous environmental review by eliminating the possibility of future nuclear testing. The US signed the CTBT treaty in 1996, but the Senate has yet to ratify it.

At no point in the nuclear age has an American president exhibited so cavalier an attitude toward nuclear weapons as the current occupant of the White House. He has, at various times, questioned the worth of having a nuclear arsenal if the United States is not willing to use it, leaving the door open to a first strike. This has seemed particularly true with regard to North Korea. President Trump views expanding America’s nuclear capabilities as a natural extension of his efforts to make the most powerful and best-funded military on the planet “great again.” A resumption of testing is extremely likely at some point in the not too distant future if he gets his way.

Congress has so far demonstrated little desire to stand up to the president as he shreds the traditions and institutions the United States took for granted until 2016. Republicans, in particular, seem at best resigned to Trumpism, with many even taking on the role of cheerleaders as the president makes a mockery of the nation’s values. But the use of nuclear weapons is no laughing matter. Renewed testing alone would have serious foreign policy as well as domestic public health consequences, even if the US remained committed to never using nuclear weapons in a first strike against another country.

Admittedly the Safety for Americans from Nuclear Weapons Testing Act only serves to put the brakes on any rush toward renewed testing. However, given the Senate’s refusal so far to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, SANWTA may be the best means to run out the clock on a reckless administration that disdains careful deliberation and transparency. Just its reintroduction would bring much-needed attention to an issue many Americans have forgotten. Attention often buys time, and buying time when it comes to the proliferation of nuclear weapons can mean the difference between civilization’s survival and collapse.

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This Could Be My Family

By Craig Axford | United States

We all need to ask ourselves the question Sarah Huckabee Sanders refuses to answer

Shortly after Schindler’s List came out in 1993, my wife and I got a babysitter and went to the theater to see it. I managed to keep it together until the scene depicting the cleansing of the Warsaw Ghetto.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the film is done in black and white. But in the Warsaw Ghetto scene, there’s a small girl trying to escape the madness and suffering that has suddenly broken out all around her. Steven Spielberg made that small girl stand out by giving her a pink coat.

She was about my daughter’s age, and she looked very much like her too. I recall her crawling under a bed, and I remember Schindler looking down from a hill seeing her dash down the street uncertain where she might go to escape the machine gun fire, rape, and chaos that marked the Ghetto’s final hours. Later in the movie, we learn her fate. I don’t think I’ve ever wept so openly in a theater before or since. That could be my daughter I thought over and over again.

Yesterday, I was reminded again that this could be my family. As I watched White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodge the question yelled at her by Brian Karem, a reporter with Playboy Magazine, I saw the face of someone — the face of an administration — that simply could not imagine their children and grandchildren in anything other than the comfortable circumstances they already enjoyed.

“Come on, Sarah, you’re a parent,” Karem shouted at Sanders. “Don’t you have any empathy for what these people are going through?” No, she doesn’t. Besides, as she had already told CNN’s Jim Acosta, taking away the children of immigrants crossing the border is the law, and the Bible tells us to follow the law. It isn’t the law, but to these people the rule of law has always been seen as a rather quaint concept.

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”
Anatole France

There are certainly plenty of verses that justify slavery, misogyny, and genocide in the Bible. Most of them are in the Old Testament, however. Though I’m hardly a religious man, I am well aware there are a number of other verses that focus on love and recommend forgiveness. Regardless, Jesus was supposedly not a man overly attached to the law, and he paid a price for it.

But if we’re inclined to turn to the Bible in situations like these, the verses we turn to say far more about us than they do Judeo-Christian ethics. Those willing to face Brian Karem and accept his challenge to imagine our children or grandchildren ripped from our arms don’t need a Bible verse to tell us that what’s happening on the Mexican border right now is evil.

I, like most Americans, grew up convinced that the horrors of 1930s and 40s would never happen here. Not in my lifetime at any rate. I was wrong. It’s begun. Border agents are telling mothers and fathers they are taking their child for a bath and not returning them. Sound familiar?

That there are supposedly only a couple of thousand children so far does not mean we are as far from Auschwitz as we would like to think. Numbers are about scale. Evil is about how we treat others. Whether our betrayal of human rights affects one, a thousand, or a million people we are tarnished just the same.

But the numbers will not remain a couple of thousand. Those taking a quantitative view of evil must tell us at what number we should be troubled that our country is tearing families apart, traumatizing children, and condemning people to live in warehouses and (soon) tent cities. They must explain why quantity matters when it comes to human rights abuses, but not when it comes to treating people as though they have inherent dignity and worth.

I’ve had enough of walls. I’ve already seen more hate in my native country than I ever thought I would. If we can answer the question Sarah Huckabee Sanders could or would not, we must oppose this government with every fiber of our being. The global community must not engage in appeasement. If America’s noble aspirations are to be salvaged, the current US government must be peacefully but forcefully resisted on every front. If successful, we’ll never know how far America would have descended without our resistance, but that’s not something we want to find out.

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Democracy Is Infuriating. Stop Taking It Personally

By Craig Axford | United States

It shouldn’t be that hard to separate the people that are just trying to deflect or stifle debate from those seriously grappling with important questions. But in a democracy that is experiencing a rapid decline in critical thinking skills, it’s the deflectors and stiflers that are currently ascendant.

I’m not a fan of political correctness either as a phrase or in practice. Correctness and politics ideally intersect only when we translate sound ideas into policy. Originally the term referred specifically to the strict adherence to a particular political view or ideology — one was either correctly or incorrectly towing the party line as it were. Assuming Wikipedia’s history of political correctness is accurate, its contemporary usage didn’t begin to emerge until the early 1970s.

Conservatives, in particular, have turned political correctness into a rhetorical bludgeon. Sadly, their opponents have often been willing to oblige them by providing examples of the practice that range from silly or annoying to loud and occasionally violent. Plain old correctness got lost in the increasingly odious political fog produced in our democracy. Being respectful and polite shouldn’t require us to avoid controversy. Nor should being rude and vulgar be construed as refreshing authenticity.

That ad hominem attacks are not merely fallacious, but a sign of weakness and insecurity in the individual substituting them for sound argumentation is no longer widely understood. By labeling those with differing points of view as everything from fascist to snowflake, the person sticking the label on their opponent is attempting to shut down the debate rather than engage in good faith. Having dehumanized the opposition with a label, they have rendered the other’s views unworthy of consideration. Case closed. Thinking, to say nothing of listening, is no longer required.

Another pernicious form of silencing in democracy is practiced by those adopting the intellectually lazy and ultimately relativist stance that they are “entitled to their opinion.” It would seem at first glance that these individuals must also recognize that others are entitled to theirs. However, what they really mean is that having developed an opinion of their own, there’s really no need to listen to anyone else’s. Furthermore, because having an opinion is something they are “entitled to,” having one is also rather conveniently its own justification.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” — and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse. ~ Patrick Stokes, professor of philosophy at Deakin University in Australia

No matter where we might fall on the political spectrum, the attempt to silence others by any means is a betrayal of classical liberalism’s most essential principle: freedom of speech. When our attention is upon identity (our own or another’s) or upon our own right to hold an opinion, the ideas that should be the focus of our conversations with one another are minimized and tossed aside. There is no room in a democracy for the practice of citizenship in personalized debates that drive individuals into tribal corners or defensive crouches.

In his book The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra writes, “Survival in the crowd seems guaranteed by conformity to the views and opinions of whichever sectarian group one belongs to. The elites,” Mishra continues, “engage meanwhile in their own factional battles and presume to think on behalf of everyone else. The general moral law is one of obedience and conformity to the rules of the rich and powerful.” In the end, “Such a society where social bonds are defined by a dependence on other people’s opinion and competitive private ambition is a place devoid of any possibility of individual freedom.”

But we need not end up in such a society. Some of us are still old enough to remember a time when most disagreements were not taken personally, or at least did not seem to be. We can remember discussions between Republicans and Democrats, and others too, that ended with everyone leaving as friends and wanting to come back for more. Indeed, we can still find examples of such civility between those with different points of view. The friendly back and forth between the conservative David Brooks and the more liberal-minded Mark Shields each Friday night on the PBS Newshour comes to mind as an example.

To get back to civility we must regain faith in the process. Freedom of expression and of the press are necessary to a functioning democracy, not because we have the right view and others need to hear it, but because having all the views openly debated enables the best solutions to emerge from the debate. Only when each of us is able to smooth the rough edges off our position through friction with other perspectives can the best ideas develop and gain popular support.

Single-party states and authoritarian regimes may be more efficient, but they provide limited space for individuals and groups alike to truly flourish. Pluralistic societies necessarily make us uncomfortable with regularity, but they develop in their citizens a greater tolerance for uncertainty that requires faith in the process to take precedence over faith in an ideology. Personal attacks on those with views we don’t share are an indication it’s an ideology or particular leader rather than the process to which we have begun to devote ourselves.

President Trump’s attacks on the press, his insistence upon personal loyalty, and his affinity for authoritarian leaders represent an assault on a process that has served us well, even if it hasn’t served us perfectly. Similarly, the idea that controversy represents an assault upon our personal feelings or group identity signals that we no longer believe the marketplace of ideas is capable of separating the wheat from the chaff, or that we have lost patience with the time it often takes for it to do so.

In both cases, the willingness to engage in the hard intellectual work of citizenship has been abandoned in favor of slogans and ad hominem attacks. I’m not sure how to persuade those that have given themselves over to the emotional comfort believing in a “strong leader” or embracing the simplicity of an ideology provides. Democracy is messy, which makes any argument for it unappetizing to those that haven’t developed a taste for it.

“To live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger,” de Tocqueville stated after long and careful observation of America. We are now facing the very real possibility that enough Americans have failed to adapt to these conditions to sustain democracy in the United States. Time will tell, but it doesn’t appear we’ll have to wait long for the answer. We should have it by the end of 2020.

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