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The True State of the Union

What you won’t hear during tonight’s speech.

What you won't hear during tonight's speech — the truth.

I wrote that a year ago about the last State of the Union address, and I have no reason to doubt tonight will prove to be any different. These addresses have been, by and large, wildly overwrought exercises in fiction, ego-inflation and ersatz patriotism since Ronald Reagan decided to go big with them four decades ago. Now that Donald Trump has lumbered onto the scene, however, the charade has become quite completely surreal, a festival of lies, bombast and full-throated nonsense that beggars likeness.

They will stand, they will sit, they will clap, they will leave, and nothing of substance or import will have been imparted to the people. Therefore, my colleagues and I at Truthout have endeavored to compile a collection of facts about the actual state of the union, and indeed the world, as a companion piece to the speech.

What follows does not cover every topic and crisis worthy of attention. The ongoing calamity of for-profit health care, attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, racist police violence, Yemen, the Forever Wars and other vital subjects will be discussed in a variety of articles to come. Here is an incomplete yet all-too-necessary look at a few of the most pressing concerns we face. Here is the truth, as best as we can state it, about the state of things. It is not pretty, not without hope, and exactly what you deserve to hear.

— William Rivers Pitt

The Climate Crisis Grinds On

Since the Trump administration began, it has launched a wholesale war against any legislation, laws, or other actions aimed at regulating, mitigating or stemming the tide of runaway climate disruption. At a time when governments around the world should be making managing the impacts of climate change their highest priority, given that the very survival of the human species could well depend upon it, they have instead:

  • Withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate accord;
  • Waged a war against climate science by cutting budgets for data and analysis on the subject;
  • Eased carbon emission rules for new coal plants;
  • Issued an executive order calling for a sharp increase in logging on public lands;
  • Nominated coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency;
  • Rolled back Obama-era coal rules that served to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants;
  • Delayed a climate change lawsuit brought forward by 21 youths;
  • Approved the first offshore oil wells for the Arctic, and so much more.

All this, despite the fact that the Trump administration has also predicted a seven degree increase in global temperatures by 2100.

— Dahr Jamail

The Racist Underbelly of Immigration

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued its campaign of anti-migrant violence unabated, deporting record numbers of people in 2018. In only the past week, we’ve learned that the agency created a fake university in order to incarcerate over 100 immigrants. ICE has confirmed that it is force-feeding at least nine detainees.

We’ve also recently observed the second anniversary of the shameful executive order known as the “Muslim ban.” Meanwhile, the administration’s assault on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which protects approximately 700,000 immigrants from deportation, is momentarily halted by various court orders.

Although Trump has not deported nearly as many people as did Obama — the deporter-in-chief — the current administration has laid bare the depths of racism that underpin our immigration system.

The US tortures migrants. It traumatizes children and their families. It allows private prisons to exploit them as slave labor. It lets them die in detention.

Our nation’s immigration policy will not attend to what matters most — human lives — until it starts from the roots of the crisis: decades of US invasions and interventions throughout the Middle East and Latin America, including the 2009 US-backed coup in Honduras; and a neoliberal trade policy that displaces, dispossesses and immiserates workers and Indigenous communities. We must also ask what another US-backed coup, such as the ongoing attempt in Venezuela, would do to deepen the crisis.

The two parties continue to approach immigration from the point of view of security, but fail to address the far greater threats — or actual threats — posed to our lives, such as fossil fuel executives, white supremacists, nuclear weapons and Wall Street.

The truth is that caravans will continue to come to our borders for years to come. The construction of walls, whether in the form of Trump’s “vision” of actual barriers, or the Democrats’ Silicon Valley wet dream, will not address the crisis. The movement of peoples spawned by capitalism and empire will not end with a fence or “comprehensive immigration reform.”

This past month, the Trump administration used federal workers as a bargaining chip in its quest to fund a racist border wall, which is nothing more than a monument to anti-immigrant racism. Millions of workers have suffered, and millions more might not be paid for their labor. But when workers threatened to withdraw their labor, they shut down the shutdown.

As we’re likely very soon to hear about a “state of emergency” at the border that once again renews the attacks on immigrants, herein lies the real power to fight back — the organized masses of workers and oppressed communities. Only together can we demand the most humane immigration policy: Let them all in!

— Anton Woronczuk

The State of the Prison Nation

This past year, the state of prison reform reached peak hypocrisy. Donald Trump signed the First Step Act — a much-celebrated bill that offers meager reforms and an expansion of mass surveillance — the day after implementing a draconian new anti-refugee policy and affirming he wouldn’t sign a budget bill without wall funding. Congress rallied around the First Step Act with bipartisan cheer. Trump is likely to mention it in tonight’s State of the Union address.

Meanwhile, it will do practically nothing to alleviate mass incarceration, and will deepen the reach of racist, insidious prison-like mechanisms like electronic monitoring. This type of tinkering around the edges does not address our shameful reality: The state of our “union” is a state of pervasive imprisonment, both inside and outside the walls and bars. Almost 2.3 million people are trapped in prisons, jails (including immigration jails, Indian Country jails and youth jails), military prisons, civil commitment centers and psychiatric hospitals.

At least 80,000 of them are held in solitary confinement — a practice widely recognized to be torture. Immigrant jails saw a record high population this year. The impact of incarcerative punishment reaches far past the prison walls: More than half of the people in the United States have a family member who is or has been incarcerated.

Meanwhile, about 4.5 million people are under “correctional control”: parole or probation. About 438,000 children (and increasing) are ensnared in the foster care system — another branch of the prison nation, as criminology scholar Beth Richie has pointed out. And 3.2 million children have been caught up in often invasive, and even abusive, child “protective” services investigations.

Police are nearly everywhere in our society. Approximately 10.6 million arrests take place each year, and last year, cops killed 1,166 people. More than 40 percent of schools have police on site. Moreover, an increasing number of people are being placed on surveillance devices, such as electronic shackles, that stretch the reach of the prison nation even further.

The prison, policing and surveillance systems are not only a feature of our society, they saturate it.

Black and Brown people, as well as other marginalized groups, are overwhelmingly impacted by these systems. The relevance of race and marginalization is not just a question of disproportions. The prison and punishment systems are built on a foundation of white supremacy, born out of slavery and colonialism, fueled by anti-Blackness and racism. These are systems that punish people for their poverty, their disabilities, their addictions. These are systems that persecute and torture trans, nonbinary and queer people.

Even as Donald Trump endorses (extremely limited) reforms, he’s enthusiastically supporting the capture, confinement and punishment — in one form or another — of many millions of oppressed people. Regardless of what Trump says tonight during his speech, he is presiding over a “union” whose veins pulse with torturous punishment, whose lifeblood is oppression, and whose bones are bars of steel.

— Maya Schenwar

Strange Days on the Media Front

It’s been something of a best of times/worst of times situation on the media front. The media landscape has never been so vast and infested with landmines. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has killed net neutrality for the moment. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) are hurting more people than helping. Corporate media continue to revel in corporate-media-ness (the wall-to-wall coverage of a coffee chain billionaire taking his ego for a walk serving as a sample platter). Journalists are losing jobs left and right — Buzzfeed reminded everybody on hard news shortly before laying off 200 employees in the name of profits.

Even when it’s good — even when it’s great! — much of blockbuster cinema perpetuates authoritarian, reactionary and monarchical narratives. The threat of a certain kind of magical thinking spilling over from pop entertainment into real-life decision-making can be overblown in many arenas, but it can be unnerving to consider wealthy tech bros mistaking themselves for Tony Stark and mistaking that for a good thing. It’s not reassuring that our most popular narratives extol the message that “only a handful of ‘better’ people can save us, if only we didn’t hold them back with pesky rules.”

One could feast exclusively on free (often donation-funded) video essay content endlessly on YouTube. The rise of BreadTube and the like has led to massively entertaining and educational content receiving a larger audience and support. Just a tiny sample from this past year: Shannon Strucci’s illuminating work on parasocial relationships; Lindsey Ellis’s documentary-length treatise on The Hobbit films making a surprising pivot toward labor concerns; Donoteat explaining why highways never solve the problems they’re prescribed for; Contrapoints, raising the aesthetic bar for the rest of YouTube with her videos, including those on incels, Jordan Peterson and capitalism… the list of amazing essays released in the past year is intimidating.

A downside: it’s become impossible to spend any amount of time on YouTube without having “alt-right”/anti-feminist/white supremacist/conspiracy garbage force-fed to your stream. Let one slip through on an auto-play and all of a sudden, the algorithm’s decided it’s true love and opened the sluice gates.

It’s another sign of the undeniably strange times we’re living in. While many are trapped in information bubbles formed by culture as well as by algorithms, the possibilities of media have reached weird and inspiring heights. For instance: H. Bomberguy’s Donkey Kong 64 stream in support of Mermaids, a group that helps out trans youth, was both heartwarming and surreal. Who could have expected to see some of the most entertaining, left-leaning YouTubers on the same stream as Chelsie Manning, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the guy who made DOOM, all cheering on trans rights and a sleep-deprived YouTuber playing a 90s video game?

The messages that support progressive causes and human empathy may win out in value, but if they are not communicated well enough, far enough and often enough, they will lose out to messaging that preys on fear, hatred and greed bankrolled by billionaires. It is both a thrill and a relief to see more effective progressive messaging reach larger audiences through a growing, more diverse and more empowered chorus of voices. However, platforms are not our friends, and we need to be prepared when the ground beneath us shifts. From platforms to platform games, there are helping hands there for the taking. The networks we build offline and online between each other remain essential.

— Jared Rodriguez

The State of the Unions Is (Surprisingly) Strong

While Trump touts the economy, the most recent jobs report reveals that the new jobs being created under his administration pay much less than existing ones and are less likely to be unionized. Wage growth has just barely ticked up to 3.2 percent over the last year — remaining lower than where it was before the Great Recession. Further, many of the 800,000 federal workers who spent more than a month locked out of their workplaces during the longest partial government shutdown in history have yet to fully recover, with the recent rise in unemployment being attributed to furloughed workers who reported being unemployed in January.

It’s clear workers still aren’t reaping the rewards of their labor since Trump took the White House, and these conditions are increasingly driving worker militancy under an administration determined to crush organized labor. In fact, labor has seen a stunning resurgence under Trump even after the passage of Janus v. AFSCME, which gutted unions of their ability to collect “fair share fees.”

Teachers are on the front lines of this labor resurgence. Building on the momentum of historic teacher strikes last year, teachers are wasting no time in 2019. Educators in Los Angeles launched a successful six-day strike in January, as teachers in Denver and Oakland are now gearing up to follow their lead with strikes of their own in the coming weeks. These “Red for Ed” educators are leading the labor movement, showing unions how to push back against tax cuts for corporations and privatization efforts that hurt communities. The state of the unions looks strong, despite the administration’s tremendous efforts to quell worker dissent.

— Candice Bernd

The State of the Fascist State

Disturbingly, the psychological impacts of the Trump administration’s more fascistic policies seem to have diminished in the last year. One need only examine the difference between the public upheaval over child separations in 2018 and the far more subdued condemnations we witnessed over the weekend, as word broke that the Trump administration has disclosed that there are thousands more separated children than was previously acknowledged, and argued that locating the children may not be “within the realm of the possible,” since authorities did not track where the separated children were being placed.

A similarly subdued public reaction was on display during the government shutdown, when Trump threatened to circumvent Congress by declaring a state of emergency in order to build the wall. While furloughed federal workers protested the shutdown, and grassroots efforts opposing the violence of the immigration system have been ongoing, these efforts were not met with the high level of public participation we saw in earlier protests of the Trump administration’s policies. Even as some warned that an emergency declaration could have major authoritarian consequences, the country did not erupt in the kind of protests we witnessed earlier in the administration. This process of normalization is symptomatic of fascistic politics, and should be viewed as an alarming symptom of the United States’ social and political decline.

The Democrats’ newfound dominance in the House, coupled with a focus on 2020 Democratic candidates, has fueled complacency, with many liberals viewing Trump’s agenda being hampered by Democratic gains. While some Democrats believe Trump is on the ropes, with the Mueller investigation, yet again, supposedly nearing its end, we would be remiss to see the threat Trump poses as diminished by Mueller or recent Democratic gains. As Trump has repeatedly established, he is willing to act unilaterally in his attacks on the environment, civil liberties and the social safety net — and the cultural impact of his racist, xenophobic rhetoric has not been lessened by the trials he has faced.

If anything, attacks on Trump appear to rally his base. The valorization of white rage continues unabated by his followers, and escalations should be expected from Trump’s supporters as Democratic attacks on Trump’s presidency and agenda continue. While the House may be able to push back against Trump’s legislative impacts, the culture war between white supremacy and those who oppose it has been accelerated past the point of legislative interruption.

While some continue to speak to a need for unity, the need for further polarization in response to the global rise of fascism continues, and with climate change on the table, our success or failure in proclaiming that right and wrong exist, and that evil must be opposed, may be the defining struggle not simply of our times, but of all of human history.

— Kelly Hayes

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