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Karen Greenberg, Gallows Humor in Washington and Brazil

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Just a reminder that signed, personalized copies of Joshua Frank’s genuinely unsettling book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, are still available to any reader donating $125 ($150 if you live outside the United States). The Progressive magazine dubbed his book one of the best of 2022, writing: “Joshua Frank blows the lid off ‘the U.S. government’s gargantuan plutonium operation’ that ‘churned out nearly all of the radioactive fuel used in the country’s nuclear arsenal….’ The award-winning journalist makes a compelling case that Hanford has become ‘the costliest environmental remediation project the world has ever seen, and arguably the most contaminated place on the entire planet…’ As some turn to nuclear power as a supposed solution to the climate emergency, Atomic Days reminds readers of the perils of nuclear waste and its difficult disposal.” Now, check out his recent TomDispatch piece (if you missed it) and then visit TD‘s donation page and do your damnedest! Tom]

Just in case you think that, since January 6, 2021, the trials and tribulations of the American democratic system have been unique or even (to use an all-American word) exceptional, think again. In a recent New York Times column, Max Fisher focused on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s remarkable announcement of her decision to vacate her post well before the next election. (“I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility — the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”) There, the transition proved remarkably straightforward and swift, her party voting in a new prime minister almost instantly. As Fisher points out, while Ardern’s comments were out of the ordinary, among parliamentary democracies globally, this was not otherwise an atypical event. The most stable democracies have, in fact, proved to be parliamentary ones of the sort Ardern has led for the last five-and-a-half years, “where executive power is generated by legislative majorities and depends on such majorities for survival.”

On the other hand, presidential democracies of the American sort have had a far more daunting tendency to collapse in coups or other horrors, especially during the transition period between presidencies. Fisher adds, “Donald J. Trump’s efforts to hold onto power after losing the 2020 presidential election may have been shocking and unprecedented for the United States, but they were well in line with the sorts of crises that play out in presidential systems worldwide.”

As if to make that point all too graphically, the world recently watched Brazilians play out their very own version of January 6th, once again in front of the cameras. In both cases, the shaky changeovers were unnervingly insurrectionary in nature, but as TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, author of Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump, suggests today, each of those events had its distinct qualities and striking differences.

And of the two, the American version may have come even closer than the Brazilian one to collapsing a system of government as we know it. (Thank you, Donald!) Given the extremity of the Trumpublicans who only recently (and barely) took over the House of Representatives, don’t for a second think we’re done with this yet. If you don’t believe me, just ask George Santos or Marjorie Taylor Greene about the future that awaits us and, while you’re at it, let Greenberg explain what still remains unnervingly — I just can’t help using the word — exceptional about our version of a coup attempt. Tom

The Real Failure of January 6th

How America’s Insurrectionists Crossed the Rubicon of History

Americans tuning into the television news on January 8th eyed a disturbingly recognizable scene. In an “eerily familiar” moment of “déjà vu,” just two years and two days after the January 6th Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C., a mob of thousands stormed government buildings in the capital city of another country -- Brazil. In Brasilia, what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ominously labelled “the first major international imitation of our Capitol riot" seemed to be taking place.

As the optics suggested, there were parallels indeed, underscoring a previously underappreciated fragility in our democratic framework: the period of transition between presidencies.

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Joshua Frank, The Newest Tool of War?

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Today, I’m making the first TD book offer of 2023 in return for a contribution to this site. Check out Joshua Frank’s new piece for TomDispatch and then consider getting a signed, personalized copy of his just-published book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America. All you have to do is visit the TomDispatch donation page and give $125 ($150 if you live outside the U.S.) and you’ll have in your hands a riveting account of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state that once produced plutonium as if there were (take me literally on this) no tomorrow and, as it happens, left behind for all the tomorrows to come 56 million (you read that right) gallons of radioactive waste! Don’t wait. The half-life on this deal could be short!  Tom]

I continue to find it strange beyond words that the Pentagon is now in the midst of “modernizing” the American nuclear arsenal to the tune of perhaps $2 trillion in the coming decades. I’m sorry, are we really talking about the bombs that once destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki now multiplied in power unbelievably many times over? Are we really talking about weaponry that could, if ever used, leave whole countries in the all-too-literal dust and this planet in a nuclear winter in which billions of us would starve to death? Are these truly the weapons you want to “modernize”?

Only recently, the Air Force proudly rolled out a new nuclear bomber as if on a Hollywood set and there’s so much else still to come, including — hooray! Hurrah! — a “next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile” and a new Columbia Class nuclear submarine, the first of which, the District of Columbia, had a keel-laying ceremony last June. Those subs, the largest ever built by this country, will each house 16 nuclear missiles and have its own nuclear reactor that won’t need to be refueled even once during its lifetime of “service.”  It can, in other words, be eternally deployed, ready to destroy the world at a moment’s notice.  Honestly, what could possibly go wrong when you’re hard at work modernizing — how else to put it? — the apocalypse?

Today, Joshua Frank, author of a riveting new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the place in this country most likely to give us our own Chernobyl, suggests how the U.S. military’s nuclear modernization project could be taking an all-too-postmodern form. As the headlines have made clear lately, there’s been a breakthrough in nuclear fusion that, “deployed on a large scale,” so the New York Times reported, “would offer an energy source devoid of the pollution and greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the dangerous long-lived radioactive waste created by current nuclear power plants.”

Or wait a sec! As Frank explains today, it might indeed prove a true breakthrough, though not in making our overheating world a safer place but in preparing to destroy it. Tom

Nuclear Fusion Won’t Save the Climate

But It Might Blow Up the World

I awoke on December 13th to news about what could be the most significant scientific breakthrough since the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first Covid vaccine for emergency use two years ago. This time, however, the achievement had nothing to do with that ongoing public health crisis. Instead, as the New York Times and CNN alerted me that morning, at stake was a new technology that could potentially solve the worst dilemma humanity faces: climate change and the desperate overheating of our planet. Net-energy-gain fusion, a long-sought-after panacea for all that’s wrong with traditional nuclear-fission energy (read: accidents, radioactive waste), had finally been achieved at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“This is such a wonderful example of a possibility realized, a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy,” exclaimed White House science adviser Arati Prabhakar.

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Ira Chernus, Tear Down the Gender Dam

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In all these years, one of the good things about TomDispatch for me is that it’s so often proved a learning experience. Today is a perfect example. Longtime TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus, who last wrote for this site five-and-a-half years ago, returns from retirement to discuss his drag-queen son and our growing world of gender-blending. On this subject, let me not act knowledgeable. I’m anything but “woke.” I’m an old guy and an editor who’s found himself stumbling over the very idea of a single person being “they.”

Normally, the sort of binary opposition I’ve dealt with and opposed at this website has been the urge of our government officials to consider those they don’t care for as a full-scale “them,” nothing but an enemy to fight. (If you want to know what I mean, just check out Michael Klare’s most recent piece on the Pentagon and China.) But the truth is that, even at my age, it’s a good thing to encounter those who, dealing with binary oppositions of quite a different sort, relating to the possibilities that exist in all of us, have the urge to meld them.

Honestly, in my youth in the 1950s and 1960s, things were all too painfully binary and, thinking back, I never felt comfortable with it. The caricatured and aggressive maleness of the planet I then found myself on always put me off, especially when I encountered it as a college student at Yale (not exactly my favorite experience in life). Looking back, I don’t think I ever felt even slightly comfortable as one of those men, even though at the time I never truly imagined alternatives either.

Still, one of my close friends at college was gay — he would later die of AIDS — and that, at least, was eye-opening for me. So, given my life, given what’s mattered to me, and having now spent time with Chernus’s piece, I feel I should indeed open myself more to the way young people are questioning the binary nature of our world and exploring the true complexity of us all. Let him introduce you to his experience of it and see what you think. Tom

Who Will Speak Up for My Child, the Drag Queen?

And the Non-Binary and Transgender Folks Among Us, Too

What makes a good society? Is it a guaranteed right to pursue happiness, as our Declaration of Independence proclaimed? Perhaps, as Gandhi said, it’s providing the poorest and most vulnerable among us with the means to control their own lives. But what happens when it’s the pursuit of happiness that makes someone most vulnerable?

Let me introduce you to my child, my one and only. They -- and, no, it wasn’t as hard as I expected to get used to the gender-neutral plural pronoun that they prefer -- are brown-skinned, Mexican-American, secular-Jewish, and gay-married. In a country where Donald Trump is still admired by some 40% of the public, don't imagine for a second that my child, with all those identities, isn't horrifyingly vulnerable.  

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