Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Identity Thieves Hijack Cellphone Accounts to Go After Virtual Currency

Hackers have discovered that one of the most central elements of online security — the mobile phone number — is also one of the easiest to steal. Credit Kevin Hagen for The New York Times
Hackers have discovered that one of the most central elements of online security — the mobile phone number — is also one of the easiest to steal.

In a growing number of online attacks, hackers have been calling up Verizon, T-Mobile U.S., Sprint and AT&T and asking them to transfer control of a victim’s phone number to a device under the control of the hackers.

Once they get control of the phone number, they can reset the passwords on every account that uses the phone number as a security backup — as services like Google, Twitter and Facebook suggest.

“My iPad restarted, my phone restarted and my computer restarted, and that’s when I got the cold sweat and was like, ‘O.K., this is really serious,’” said Chris Burniske, a virtual currency investor who lost control of his phone number late last year.

A wide array of people have complained about being successfully targeted by this sort of attack, including a Black Lives Matter activist and the chief technologist of the Federal Trade Commission. The commission’s own data shows that the number of so-called phone hijackings has been rising. In January 2013, there were 1,038 such incidents reported; by January 2016, that number had increased to 2,658.
But a particularly concentrated wave of attacks has hit those with the most obviously valuable online accounts: virtual currency fanatics like Mr. Burniske.
Within minutes of getting control of Mr. Burniske’s phone, his attackers had changed the password on his virtual currency wallet and drained the contents — some $150,000 at today’s values.

Most victims of these attacks in the virtual currency community have not wanted to acknowledge it publicly for fear of provoking their adversaries. But in interviews, dozens of prominent people in the industry acknowledged that they had been victimized in recent months.

“Everybody I know in the cryptocurrency space has gotten their phone number stolen,” said Joby Weeks, a Bitcoin entrepreneur.

Mr. Weeks lost his phone number and about a million dollars’ worth of virtual currency late last year, despite having asked his mobile phone provider for additional security after his wife and parents lost control of their phone numbers.

The attackers appear to be focusing on anyone who talks on social media about owning virtual currencies or anyone who is known to invest in virtual currency companies, such as venture capitalists. And virtual currency transactions are designed to be irreversible.

Accounts with banks and brokerage firms and the like are not as vulnerable to these attacks because these institutions can usually reverse unintended or malicious transactions if they are caught within a few days.

But the attacks are exposing a vulnerability that could be exploited against almost anyone with valuable emails or other digital files — including politicians, activists and journalists.

Last year, hackers took over the Twitter account of DeRay Mckesson, a leader of the Black Lives Matters movement, by first getting his phone number.

In a number of cases involving digital money aficionados, the attackers have held email files for ransom — threatening to release naked pictures in one case, and details of a victim’s sexual fetishes in another.

The vulnerability of even sophisticated programmers and security experts to these attacks sets an unsettling precedent for when the assailants go after less technologically savvy victims. Security experts worry that these types of attacks will become more widespread if mobile phone operators do not make significant changes to their security procedures.

“It’s really highlighting the insecurity of using any kind of telephone-based security,” said Michael Perklin, the chief information security officer at the virtual currency exchange ShapeShift, which has seen many of its employees and customers attacked.

Mobile phone carriers have said they are taking steps to head off the attacks by making it possible to add more complex personal identification numbers, or PINs, to accounts, among other steps.

But these measures have not been enough to stop the spread and success of the culprits.

After a first wave of phone porting attacks on the virtual currency community last winter, which was reported by Forbes, their frequency appears to have ticked up, Mr. Perklin and other security experts said.

In several recent cases, the hackers have commandeered phone numbers even when the victims knew they were under attack and alerted their cellphone provider.
Joby Weeks at a park near his parents’ home in Arvada, Colo. Mr. Weeks lost his phone number and about a million dollars’ worth of virtual currency last year. Credit Matthew Staver for The New York Times
Adam Pokornicky, a managing partner at Cryptochain Capital, asked Verizon to put extra security measures on his account after he learned that an attacker had called in 13 times trying to move his number to a new phone.

But just a day later, he said, the attacker persuaded a different Verizon agent to change Mr. Pokornicky’s number without requiring the new PIN.
A spokesman for Verizon, Richard Young, said that the company could not comment on specific cases, but that phone porting was not common.
Privacy Policy
“While we work diligently to ensure customer accounts remain secure, on occasion there are instances where automated processes or human performance falls short,” he said. “We strive to correct these issues quickly and look for additional ways to improve security.”

Mr. Perklin, who worked at a Canadian mobile phone operator before joining ShapeShift, said most phone companies would write down any additional security requests in the notes of a customer account.
But agents can generally act on their own, he said, regardless of what is in the notes, and can easily miss what is in the notes.

The vulnerability of phone numbers is the unintended consequence of a broad push in the security industry to institute a practice, known as two-factor authentication, that is supposed to help make accounts more secure.

Many email providers and financial firms require customers to tie their online accounts to phone numbers, to verify their identity. But this system also generally allows someone with the phone number to reset the passwords on these accounts without knowing the original passwords. A hacker just hits “forgot password?” and has a new code sent to the commandeered phone.
Mr. Pokornicky was online at the time his phone number was taken, and he watched as his assailants seized all his major online accounts within a few minutes.

“It felt like they were one step ahead of me the whole time,” he said.
The speed with which the attackers move has convinced people who are investigating the hacks that the attacks are generally run by groups of hackers working together.

Danny Yang, the founder of the virtual currency security firm BlockSeer, said he had traced several attacks to internet addresses in the Philippines, though other attacks have been tracked to computers in Turkey and the United States.
Mr. Perklin and other people who have investigated recent hacks said the assailants generally succeeded by delivering sob stories about an emergency that required the phone number to be moved to a new device — and by trying multiple times until a gullible agent was found.

“These guys will sit and call 600 times before they get through and get an agent on the line that’s an idiot,” Mr. Weeks said.

Coinbase, one of the most widely used Bitcoin wallets, has encouraged customers to disconnect their mobile phones from their Coinbase accounts.
But some customers who have lost money have said the companies need to take more steps by doing things like delaying transfers from accounts on which the password was recently changed.

“Coinbase looks like a bank, stores millions of dollars like a bank, but you don’t realize how weak its default protections are until you are robbed of thousands of dollars in minutes,” said Cody Brown, a virtual reality developer who was hacked in May.

Mr. Brown wrote a widely circulated post about his experience, in which he lost around $8,000 worth of virtual currency from his Coinbase account, all as he sat online and watched, getting no response from the customer service at either Coinbase or Verizon.

A spokesman for Coinbase said the company “has invested significant resources to build internal tools to help protect our customers against hackers and account takeovers, including compromise through phone porting.”

The irreversibility of Bitcoin transactions has often been lauded as one of the most important qualities of virtual currency because it makes it harder for banks and governments to intervene in transactions.

But Mr. Pokornicky said the virtual currency industry needed to alert new users to the added risk that comes with the new features of the technology.
“It’s powerful to be able to control your money and move things without any permission,” he said. “But that privilege requires a clear understanding of the downside.”

Monday, August 21, 2017

Bannon wants Priebus to testify to Mueller that Kushner was behind Comey's firing

Sonam Sheth:

Ousted White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is gearing up for battle and has set his sights on President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, according to Vanity Fair.

Bannon and Kushner have a long history of disagreement, with the two frequently butting heads on the ideological plane, where Bannon's far-right nationalist instincts clashed with Kushner's more moderate views.

In the wake of his ouster, Bannon is looking to even the score with West Wing rivals like Kushner, Vanity Fair reported. In keeping with that, Bannon reportedly wants former chief of staff Reince Priebus to testify to special counsel Robert Mueller that Kushner was significantly involved in Trump's decision to fire former FBI director James Comey in May.

According to Vanity Fair, Priebus believes Kushner and his wife, Ivanka, convinced Trump to fire Comey during a weekend they spent with the president at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. When Trump returned to the White House on May 8, he informed aides that he was going to fire Comey, and he dismissed the FBI director the next day.

Comey's firing drew wide condemnation, and as accusations that Trump had fired Comey to obstruct an ongoing FBI counterintelligence investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Moscow in 2016 began piling up, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel in charge of overseeing the investigation.

Mueller's team has cast a wide net in its probe, looking at multiple Trump confidants like former campaign manager Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Mueller is also diving into the Trump family's finances and business dealings, including Kushner's.

Kushner met separately with the Russian ambassador to the US and a Russian businessman in December. Those interactions that were already under scrutiny as part of the FBI probe, but sources informed The Washington Post of the financial focus of the investigation.

During the meeting at Trump Tower with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, Kushner reportedly floated the possibility of establishing a back channel line of communication between the Trump transition team and Russia.

The White House has said that Kushner's subsequent meeting with Sergey Gorkov, CEO of Russia's state-owned Vnesheconombank, was unrelated to business matters. But the FBI is looking into whether Gorkov suggested to Kushner that Russian banks could finance the business ventures of Trump's associates if US sanctions were lifted or relaxed.

Kushner met with the Senate Intelligence Committee in late July and told reporters afterward that he "did not collude" with Russia during the election and added that he had "nothing to hide."

Business Insider

What Will Trump Do to American Workers?

With Steve Bannon out of the White House, it’s clearer than ever that Donald Trump’s promise to be a populist fighting for ordinary workers was worth about as much as any other Trump promise — that is, nothing. His agenda, such as it is, amounts to reverse Robin Hood with extra racism — the conventional Republican strategy of taking from struggling families to give to the rich, while distracting lower-income whites by attacking Those People, with the only difference being just how blatantly he plays the race card.

At first sight, however, the Trump version of this strategy doesn’t seem to be going very well. The attempt to repeal Obamacare was almost a caricature of trickle-down policy — take health coverage away from 20-plus million Americans while cutting taxes on a handful of wealthy individuals. But it was massively unpopular, and appears to have failed in Congress.

The next item on the agenda, tax “reform,” may not fare much better. I use scare quotes because a true reform, reducing some tax rates but making up for the lost revenue by closing loopholes, was never going to happen. Straight-out tax cuts, which benefit corporations and the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, might still go through, but even that looks doubtful.

So is the Trump agenda dead? Not necessarily, because trickle-down has never been the whole story of the Republican assault on workers. Or to put it another way: Don’t just watch Congress, keep your eyes on what federal agencies are doing.

President Trump speaking to autoworkers in Ypsilanti, Mich., in March. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

When you step back and take the long view on trickle-down policies, what you realize is that Trump’s legislative failure is more the rule than the exception. The election of Ronald Reagan was supposed to have set America on a path toward lower taxes and smaller government — and it did, for a while. But those changes have largely been reversed.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, back in 1980 the top 1 percent paid 33 percent of its income in federal taxes. Under Reagan, that share briefly fell below 25 percent. But as of 2013, the most recent year covered, Obama’s tax hikes had brought federal taxes on the 1 percent back up to 34 percent of income.

Looking only at taxing and spending, then, one might conclude that the conservative economic agenda has largely failed. But here’s the thing: While the rich still pay taxes and the safety net has in some ways gotten stronger, the decades since Reagan have nonetheless been marked by vastly increased inequality, with stagnating wages for most, but soaring incomes for a tiny elite. How did that happen?

Yes, globalization probably played some role, as did technology. But other wealthy countries, just as exposed to the winds of global change, haven’t seen anything like America’s headlong rush into a new Gilded Age. To understand what happened to us, and in particular to American workers, you need to look at policy — and especially the kind of policy that often flies under the media’s radar.

Take one example, covered a few months ago in a striking Times essay: the decline in the fortunes of truck drivers, whose pay used to make them members of the middle class. No more: Their real wages have fallen about a third since the 1970s, with most of the decline taking place during the Reagan years.

Now, globalization and technology haven’t destroyed trucking jobs; on the contrary, the industry is facing a labor shortage. What happened to truckers was, basically, the collapse of their bargaining power due in part to a changed ideological climate — not least at the National Labor Relations Board — that encouraged private employers to fight unionization, and in part to deregulation that undercut the position of unionized firms.

Take another example, at the opposite end of the spectrum: Does anyone doubt that financial deregulation played an important role in surging incomes at the very top of the income distribution?
Which brings us back to Trump and the effect he’ll have on America’s working class. Right now it looks as if he may have much less impact on taxing and spending than most people expected. But other policies, often made administratively by federal agencies rather than via legislation, can matter a lot.

True, Trump failed in his attempt to appoint a deeply anti-labor fast-food executive to head the Department of Labor. But the fact that he even tried to appoint Andrew Puzder tells you a great deal.
The point is that progressives shouldn’t celebrate too much over Trump’s legislative failures. As long as he’s in office, he retains a lot of power to betray the working people who supported him. And in case you haven’t noticed, betraying those who trust him is a Trump specialty.


'The civil war lies on us like a sleeping dragon': America's deadly divide - and why it has returned

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1781. The American revolution still raged, many of his own slaves had escaped, his beloved Virginia teetered on social and political chaos. Jefferson, who had crafted the Declaration of Independence for this fledgling nation at war with the world’s strongest empire, felt deeply worried about whether his new country could survive with slavery, much less the war against Britain. Slavery was a system, said Jefferson, “daily exercised in tyranny,” with slaveholders practicing “unremitting despotism,” and the slaves a “degrading submission.”

The founder was hopeless and hopeful. He admitted that slaveholding rendered his own class depraved “despots,” and destroyed the “amor patriae” of their bondsmen. But his fear was universal. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” This advocate of the natural rights tradition, and confounding contradictory genius, ended his rumination with the vague entreaty that his countrymen “be contented to hope” that a “mollifying” of the conditions of slaves and a new “spirit” from the revolution would in the “order of events” save his country.

For that republic to survive it took far more than hope and a faith in progress. Indeed, it did not survive; in roughly four score years it tore itself asunder over the issue of racial slavery, as well as over fateful contradictions in its constitution. The American disunion of 1861-65, the emancipation of 4 million slaves, and the reimagining of the second republic that resulted form the pivot of American history. The civil war sits like the giant sleeping dragon of American history ever ready to rise up when we do not expect it and strike us with unbearable fire. It has happened here – existential civil war, fought with unspeakable death and suffering for fundamentally different visions of the future.

Republics are ever unsteady and at risk, as our first and second founders well understood. Americans love to believe their history is blessed and exceptional, the story of a people with creeds born of the Enlightenment that will govern the worst of human nature and inspire our “better angels” to hold us together. Sometimes they do. But this most diverse nation in the world is still an experiment, and we are once again in a political condition that has made us ask if we are on the verge of some kind of new civil conflict.

In one of his earliest speeches, the Young Men’s Lyceum address, in 1838, Abraham Lincoln worried about politicians’ unbridled ambition, about mob violence, and about the “perpetuation of our political institutions”. The abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy had just been murdered by a mob the previous year in Illinois. Lincoln saw an “ill omen” across the land due to the slavery question. He felt a deep sense of responsibility inherited from the “fathers” of the revolution. How to preserve and renew “the edifice of liberty and equal rights,” he declared, provided the challenge of his generation. “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” Lincoln asked. “By what means shall we fortify against it?” His worries made him turn inward. “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined … could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.” Lincoln did not fear foreign enemies. If “danger” would “ever reach us,” he said, “it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Those words were prescient in Lincoln’s own century. But they have a frightful clarity even today. Where are we now? Are Americans on the verge of some kind of social disintegration, political breakup, or collective nervous breakdown, as the writer Paul Starobin has recently asked? Starobin has written a new book, Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860, and the Mania for War, in which he revisits the old thesis that the secession moment represented a “crisis of fear” that led tragically to disunion and war. Psychologically and verbally, in the comment sections on the internet, and in talkshow television, we are a society, as Starobin shows, already engaged in a war of words. And it has been thus for a long time. Americans are expressing their hatreds, their deepest prejudices, and their fierce ideologies. It remains to be seen whether we have a deep enough well of tolerance and faith in free speech to endure this “catharsis” we seem to seek.

Psychological explanations, however, do not fully explain America’s current political condition. We are in conflict about real and divergent ideas. Are we engaged, half-wittingly, in a slow suicide as a democracy? Are we engaged in a “cold civil war” as one writer has suggested? Or does it feel like 1859, as another expert wondered, with so much rhetorical and real violence in the air? The election, and performance in office of Donald Trump, have many serious people using words like “unprecedented,” or phrases like “where in time are we,” or “we haven’t been here before.” Commentators and ordinary citizens have been asking how or where in the past we can find parallels for our current condition.

For historians, Trump has been the gift that keeps on giving. His ignorance of American history, his flouting of political and constitutional traditions, his embrace of racist ideas and groups, his egregious uses of fear, his own party’s moral bankruptcy in its inability to confront him, have forced the media to endlessly ask historians for help. That moral cowardice by Republicans shows some glimmers of hope; Mitt Romney has just called out President Trump, accusing him of “unraveling … our national fabric” by his coziness with white supremacists, and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee charged Trump with putting the nation “in great peril” by his incompetence and racism.

Sixteen years ago, in the book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, I made a simple claim: “As long as America has a politics of race, it will have a politics of civil war memory.” Unfortunately, despite many more fine books, as well as conferences and courses taught on the same subject, that prescription seems truer now than ever. The line from the killings of Travon Martin and Michael Brown, through a myriad of other police shootings, and then especially from the mass murder of nine African Americans in Charleston in June, 2015, to the recent white supremacist demonstration and violence in Charlottesville mark a dizzying, crooked, but clear historical process. America is in the midst of yet another of its racial reckonings which always confront us with a shock of events we are, pitifully, never collectively prepared for. Just now we are engaged in a frenzied wave of Confederate monument removals; it is a manifestation of how well-meaning Americans can demonstrate their anti-racism and full of admirable impulses. But this too in all likelihood will not itself prepare us for the next shock of events nor our next reckoning. Hence, we so achingly need to know more history.

All parallels are unsteady or untrustworthy. But the present is always embedded in the past. The 1850s, the fateful decade that led to the civil war, has many instructive lessons for us. Definitions of American nationalism, of just who was a true American, were in constant debate. After the Great Hunger in Ireland the United States experienced an unprecedented immigration wave between 1845 and the mid-1850s, prompting a rapid and powerful rise of nativism. Irish and German Catholics were unwelcome and worse. The Mexican-American war of 1846-48, the nation’s first expansionist foreign conflict, stimulated an explosive political struggle over the expansion of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 caused a wave of “refugee” former slaves escaping the northern states into Canada, as well as a widespread crisis over violent rescues of fugitive slaves. Indeed, the constant flight of slaves from the South to free states was, in effect, America’s first great refugee crisis. The abolition movement, the country’s prototypical reform crusade, became increasingly politicized as it became more radical, extra-legal, and violent.

At every turn in that decade, Americans had to ask whether their institutions would last. The two major political parties, the Whigs and Democrats, either disintegrated or broke into sectional parts, north and south, over slavery. Third parties suddenly emerged with success like no other time in our history. First the Know-Nothings, or American party, whose xenophobia and anti-Catholicism got them elected in droves in New England in the early 1850s. And the most successful third party in our history, the Republicans, were born in direct resistance to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, championed by Democrats, and which opened up the western territories to the perpetual expansion of slavery. A succession of weak and pro-slavery presidents from 1844 through 1860 either tarnished the institution of the presidency or deepened the sectional and partisan divide.

In 1857, the supreme court weighed in by declaring in Dred Scott v Sandford that blacks were not and could never be citizens of the United States. They had, wrote chief justice Roger B Taney, “for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order … so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” This most notorious court decision legally opened up all of the west, and for that matter, all of the north to the presence of slavery. So discredited was the supreme court among many northerners in the wake of the decision that the Republicans made resistance to the judiciary a rallying cry of their political insurgency. That impulse led to the election of Lincoln in 1860, interpreted by most southern slaveholders, who firmly controlled that region’s politics, as the primary impulse to secede from the union. They believed they could not co-exist in a nation now led by a political organization devoted to their destruction.

By the time of the sectionalized and polarized election of 1860, conducted in a climate of violence and danger caused by John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, north and south had developed broad-based mutual conspiracy theories of each other. They did so through a thriving and highly partisan press, in both daily and weekly newspapers. Both sides tended to have their own sets of facts and their own conceptions of both history and the constitution.

White southerners feared and loathed abolitionists, and now they faced anti-slavery politicians who could truly affect power and legislation if elected. By the 1860 election, pro-slavery interests had developed a widespread theory about a “black Republican” conspiracy in the north, determined on taking hold of all reins of government to put slavery, as Lincoln in 1858 had actually said, on a “course of ultimate extinction.” In the secession crisis, one southern leader after another pronounced against what they perceived as an abolitionist conspiracy against their livelihoods and their lives. William Harris, the secession commissioner for Mississippi, claimed in December, 1860 that Republicans “now demand equality between the white and negro races, under our constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage … equality in the social circle, equality in the rights of matrimony.” He concluded therefore, the deep south faced a stark choice: “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, the part of Mississippi is chosen, she will never submit to the principles and policy of this black Republican administration.”

That Republican party, along with radical abolitionists, advanced an equally potent idea of a “slave power” conspiracy that had grown into a staple of antislavery politics. The slave power, argued northerners, consisted of the southern slaveholding political class; they were obsessively bent on control of every level of government and every institution – presidency, courts, and Congress. The slave power especially demanded control over future expansion of the United States in order for its system to survive. The theory made greater sense with time to many people, since they could see that the slave south, though wealthy, was increasingly a minority interest in the federal government.

No one made this case about the slave power better than the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In May, 1853 Douglass gave the slave power clear definition. It was “a purely slavery party” in national affairs and its branches reached “far and wide in church and state.” The conspiracy’s “cardinal objects” were suppression of abolitionist speech, removal of free blacks from the United States, guarantees for slavery in the west, the “nationalization” of slavery in every state of the union, and the expansion of slavery to Mexico and South America.

By 1855, as the Kansas crisis deepened, Douglass saw the slave power as an all-encompassing national plague with “instinctive rapacity,” with a “natural craving after human flesh and blood.” It was a “murderous onslaught” upon the rights of all Americans to sustain the claims of a few. Seeking consensus with the slave power, Douglass maintained, would be “thawing a deadly viper instead of killing it.” He had faith in the “monster’s” inherent tendency to over-reach and destroy itself. “While crushing its millions,” he said, “it is also crushing itself.” It had “made such a frightful noise” with the “Fugitive Slave Act… the Nebraska bill, the recent marauding movements of the oligarchy in Kansas,” that it now performed as the abolitionists’ “most potent ally.” Douglass detected a great change in northern public opinion. Instead of regarding the abolitionists as mere fanatics “crying wolf,” the masses now perceived the evil in their midst and themselves cried “kill the wolf.”

Thus we might see one of the strongest parallels of all between the road to disunion and our current predicament.

The rhetoric about the slave power and about black Republicans has a familiar ring today. Millions of Americans on the right who garner their information from selective websites, radio shows and Fox News possess all sorts conspiratorial conceptions of liberals and the alleged radical views of professors on university campuses. Many on the left also know precious little about people in rural and suburban America who voted for Trump; coastal elites do sometimes hold contemptuous views bordering on the conspiratorial about the people they “fly over.” Americans are more than politically polarized; we are bitterly divided about our expanding diversity, about the proper function of government, about the right to vote and how to protect it, over women’s reproductive rights, about climate science, over whether we even believe in a social contract between citizens and the polity. In other words, like the 1850s, we are divided over conflicting visions of our future. Let us hope that we find ways to fight out our current conflicts within politics and not between each other in our over-armed society. From my perspective, we can hope that like the slave power, the white supremacist far right will become its own worst enemy, and after all its frightful noise, kill itself.

As Americans consider the survival of their own amor patriae we might reflect on just how old our story is. We love stories of exile and return, destruction and redemption. When Moses sent the Israelites across the Jordan, he instructed them to put up memory stones to mark their journey and their story. Americans have put up more than their share of memory stones, and are just now living through a profound process of deciding which ones will remain. But as we look deeply into just what our own amor patriae means, and whether it can hold together, we might think hard about what inscriptions we want written on the memory stones of our own times. We might draw one from Douglass in 1867: “We ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.”

The author is Professor of American history at Yale University and author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, and the forthcoming, in 2018, Frederick Douglass: American Prophet

The Guardian 

Confederate Statues and ‘Our’ History


Credit Edu Bayer for The New York Times

President Trump’s Thursday morning tweet lamenting that the removal of Confederate statues tears apart “the history and culture of our great country” raises numerous questions, among them: Who is encompassed in that “our”?

Mr. Trump may not know it, but he has entered a debate that goes back to the founding of the republic. Should American nationality be based on shared values, regardless of race, ethnicity and national origin, or should it rest on “blood and soil,” to quote the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., whom Trump has at least partly embraced?

Neither Mr. Trump nor the Charlottesville marchers invented the idea that the United States is essentially a country for white persons. The very first naturalization law, enacted in 1790 to establish guidelines for how immigrants could become American citizens, limited the process to “white” persons.

What about nonwhites born in this country? Before the Civil War, citizenship was largely defined by individual states. Some recognized blacks born within their boundaries as citizens, but many did not. As far as national law was concerned, the question was resolved by the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Blacks, wrote Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (a statue of whom was removed from public display in Baltimore this week), were and would always be aliens in America.

This was the law of the land when the Civil War broke out in 1861. This is the tradition that the Southern Confederacy embodied and sought to preserve and that Mr. Trump, inadvertently or not, identifies with by equating the Confederacy with “our history and culture.”

In the period of Reconstruction that followed the war, this egalitarian vision was, for the first time, written into our laws and Constitution. But the advent of multiracial democracy in the Southern states inspired a wave of terrorist opposition by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups, antecedents of the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. One by one the Reconstruction governments were overthrown, and in the next generation white supremacy again took hold in the South.

When Mr. Trump identifies statues commemorating Confederate leaders as essential parts of “our” history and culture, he is honoring that dark period. Like all monuments, these statues say a lot more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of this racist regime and of an exclusionary definition of America.

The historian Carl Becker wrote that history is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.

If the issue were simply heritage, why are there no statues of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s key lieutenants? Not because of poor generalship; indeed, Longstreet warned Lee against undertaking Pickett’s Charge, which ended the battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s crime came after the Civil War: He endorsed black male suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists seeking to seize control of the state government. Longstreet is not a symbol of white supremacy; therefore he was largely ineligible for commemoration by those who long controlled public memory in the South.

As all historians know, forgetting is as essential to public understandings of history as remembering. Confederate statues do not simply commemorate “our” history, as the president declared. They honor one part of our past. Where are the statues in the former slave states honoring the very large part of the Southern population (beginning with the four million slaves) that sided with the Union rather than the Confederacy? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served in positions ranging from United States senator to justice of the peace to school board official? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.

We have come a long way from the days of the Dred Scott decision. But our public monuments have not kept up. The debate unleashed by Charlottesville is a healthy re-examination of the question “Who is an American?” And “our” history and culture is far more complex, diverse and inclusive than the president appears to realize.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Failing Trump Presidency

With each day, President Trump offers fresh proof that he is failing the office that Americans entrusted to him. The rolling disaster of his presidency accelerated downhill last week with a news conference on Tuesday at which he seemed determined to sow racial strife in a nation desperate for a unifying vision.

Since the 1930s it has not typically been a challenge for an American leader to denounce Nazism. But there is nothing typical about this president; urged by some of his advisers and family members to summon the majesty and moral authority of the presidency to heal the wounds of last weekend’s neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, to put the good of the country before personal pique, he chose instead to deliver a defense of white supremacists that raised as never before profound doubts about his moral compass, his grasp of the obligations of his office and his fitness to occupy it.

This, in essence, is where we are now: a nation led by a prince of discord who seems divorced from decency and common sense. The alarm bells were loud and swift. Five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered a rare rebuke, condemning race-based extremism in the military and the nation. Foreign leaders, from Secretary General António Guterres of the United Nations to Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, condemned intolerance and a failure of leadership in the White House.

Of all the many complaints and condemnations, the strongest came from Mr. Trump’s putative allies in the business community, a glittering who’s who of financial and corporate leaders who began resigning from two White House advisory councils early last week, ultimately forcing the president to dissolve both panels in order to spare himself the humiliation of further corporate desertions. The White House ultimately abandoned a third advisory council, on infrastructure, an area where Mr. Trump had hoped to fulfill at least one of his campaign promises to create jobs.

Mr. Trump was reportedly energized by his Tuesday performance, which he saw as a rebuke to politically correct forces that he thinks are determined to topple him. He crashed ahead, attacking critics on all sides and delivering Twitter bursts of anti-historical nonsense. Not the least of these was his repetition, shortly after the terrorist attack in Barcelona on Thursday, of the canard that Gen. John Pershing, known as “Black Jack,” had stopped Islamic terrorists in the Philippines by killing dozens of them with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, a strategy Mr. Trump thinks worthy of emulation.

One measure of the despair caused by Mr. Trump’s behavior is that we find ourselves strangely comforted by things that in any normal presidency would be cause for concern. One of these is the sheer incompetence that this president has displayed. Apart from threatening environmental, safety and financial protections with largely unfulfilled executive orders, a demonstrably cruel deportation policy, and lamentable court appointments, the worst of Mr. Trump’s plans have thankfully faltered, like destroying the Affordable Care Act, while others are nowhere in sight.

Here is yet another oddity, another upending of traditional expectations. Americans accustomed constitutionally and politically to civilian leadership now find themselves relying on three current and former generals — John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff; H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense — to stop Mr. Trump from going completely off the rails.

Experienced and educated, well-versed in the terrible costs of global confrontation and driven by an impulse toward public service that Mr. Trump doesn’t possess, these three, it is hoped, can counter his worst instincts. This is at best a weak reed, though, given the training of military leaders to follow the lead of the commander-in-chief and Mr. Trump’s tendency to confuse criticism with “disloyalty.” And the idea of three military men at the top of strategic policy making gives further pause at a time when the State Department has been robbed of expertise and traditional diplomacy has been marginalized.

Some people, optimists in our view, believe that Mr. Trump’s worst instincts can be controlled or at least moderated after the exit on Friday of one of the White House’s darker forces, Stephen Bannon. Mr. Bannon doubtless reinforced and gave bogus intellectual cover to Mr. Trump’s cramped views on immigration and race, but his influence appears to have been fading, by order of Mr. Kelly, and in any case his departure does not solve the main problem, which is Mr. Trump himself.

There are some signs that our democratic system is working to contain Mr. Trump. The failure of his efforts to deprive millions of Americans of health care coverage, the continuing investigation of his administration by the F.B.I., court challenges to his immigration and environmental edicts, and a new willingness by self-interested allies to desert him all suggest he is not immune to the forces that have felled bad presidents before him.

Is it fair to place any hope in the Republican Party, in particular its congressional leadership? For reasons of ineptitude and ideological complicity, the party’s leaders did almost nothing to counter the Trump phenomenon, nor did they seek in any sustained fashion to temper his worst excesses, beginning with his false claims about President Barack Obama’s birth and proceeding onward through his demagogic Inaugural Address.

It thus seems beyond unlikely that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, or Paul Ryan, the weak-kneed speaker of the House, would entertain any thought of strong action, like censure. But it’s fair to ask: Purely as a matter of political self-preservation, wouldn’t a concerted effort to drag Mr. Trump away from the fringes make sense? His approval ratings are drifting south of 35 percent while he continues to romance the fewer than one-quarter of Americans who say they can’t think of anything he could do to shake their support. Heading into an election year, is that where Mr. McConnell and Mr. Ryan want to be?

The deeper question, to Mr. Trump’s remaining supporters, is not political but moral. It is whether they will continue to follow a standard-bearer who is alienating most of the country by embracing extremists. Yes, other Republican leaders, while claiming the mantle of Abraham Lincoln, have subtly and not so subtly courted bigots since the days of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” But Mr. Trump has now made that subtext his text. Last week, he stripped away the pretense and the camouflage. In deciding to split Americans apart rather than draw them together, he abandoned the legacy of Lincoln for the legacy of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. He chose to summon not America’s better angels, but its demons.

Dick Gregory, 84, Dies; Found Humor in the Civil Rights Struggle

Dick Gregory, the pioneering black satirist who transformed cool humor into a barbed force for civil rights in the 1960s, then veered from his craft for a life devoted to protest and fasting in the name of assorted social causes, health regimens and conspiracy theories, died Saturday in Washington. He was 84.

Mr. Gregory’s son, Christian Gregory, who announced his death on social media, said more details would be released in the coming days. Mr. Gregory had been admitted to a hospital on Aug. 12, his son said in an earlier Facebook post.

Early in his career Mr. Gregory insisted in interviews that his first order of business onstage was to get laughs, not to change how white America treated Negroes (the accepted word for African-Americans at the time). “Humor can no more find the solution to race problems than it can cure cancer,” he said. Nonetheless, as the civil rights movement was kicking into high gear, whites who caught his club act or listened to his routines on records came away with a deeper feel for the nation’s shameful racial history.

Mr. Gregory was a breakthrough performer in his appeal to whites — a crossover star, in contrast to veteran black comedians like Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and Slappy White, whose earthy, pungent humor was mainly confined to black clubs on the so-called chitlin circuit.

Though he clearly seethed over the repression of blacks, he resorted to neither scoldings nor lectures when playing big-time rooms like the hungry i in San Francisco or the Village Gate in New York. Rather, he won audiences over with wry observations about the country’s racial chasm.

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He would plant himself on a stool, the picture of insouciance in a three-button suit and dark tie, dragging slowly on a cigarette, which he used as a punctuation mark. From that perch he would bid America to look in the mirror, and to laugh at itself.

“Segregation is not all bad,” he would say. “Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?” Or: “You know the definition of a Southern moderate? That’s a cat that’ll lynch you from a low tree.” Or: “I heard we’ve got lots of black astronauts. Saving them for the first spaceflight to the sun.”

Some lines became classics, like the one about a restaurant waitress in the segregated South who told him, “We don’t serve colored people here,” to which Mr. Gregory replied: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.” Lunch-counter sit-ins, central to the early civil rights protests, did not always work out as planned. “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months,” he said. “When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”

Mr. Gregory was a national sensation in the early 1960s, earning thousands of dollars a week from club dates and from records like “In Living Black and White” and “Dick Gregory Talks Turkey.” He wrote the first of his dozen books. Time magazine, enormously powerful then, ran a profile of him. Jack Paar, that era’s “Tonight Show” host, had him on as a guest — after Mr. Gregory demanded that he be invited to sit for a chat. Until then, black performers did their numbers, then had to leave. Time on Paar’s sofa was a sign of having arrived.

Newspapers in those days routinely put Mr. Gregory on a par with two white performers, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, anointing them a troika of modern satire. Just as routinely, he was later credited with paving the way for a new wave of black comedians who would make it big in the white world, notably two talents of thoroughly different sensibilities: the reflective Bill Cosby and the trenchant Richard Pryor.

It was Mr. Gregory’s conviction that within a well-delivered joke lies power. He learned that lesson growing up in St. Louis, achingly poor and fatherless and often picked on by other children in his neighborhood.

“They were going to laugh anyway, but if I made the jokes they’d laugh with me instead of at me,” he said in a 1964 autobiography, written with Robert Lipsyte. “After a while,” he wrote, “I could say anything I wanted. I got a reputation as a funny man. And then I started to turn the jokes on them.”

“I said, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it,” he said in a 2000 interview with NPR. “It should never be called ‘the N-word.’ ”
In 1962, Mr. Gregory joined a demonstration for black voting rights in Mississippi. That was a beginning. He threw himself into social activism body and soul, viewing it as a higher calling.
Arrests came by the dozens. In a Birmingham, Ala., jail in 1963, he wrote, he endured “the first really good beating I ever had in my life.”

He added: “It was just body pain, though. The Negro has a callus growing on his soul, and it’s getting harder and harder to hurt him there.”

In 1965, he was shot in the leg (the wound was not grave) by a rioter as he tried to be a peacemaker during the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

Increasingly, he skipped club dates to march or to perform at benefits for civil rights groups. Club owners became reluctant to book him: Who knew if he might fly off to Alabama on a moment’s notice? As the ’60s wore on, the college lecture circuit became his principal forum.

Mr. Gregory, then a candidate for president, before speaking in Norfolk, Va., in October 1968. Credit Associated Press

“Against the advice of almost everyone, he decided to risk his career for civil rights,” Gerald Nachman wrote in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s” (2003). Some pillars of the movement, like Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, who died in 1971, believed that Mr. Gregory was more valuable to their cause onstage than in the streets. To which Mr. Gregory replied, “When America goes to war, she don’t send her comedians.”

There seemed few causes he would not embrace. He took to fasting for weeks on end, his once-robust body shrinking at times to 95 pounds. Across the decades he went on dozens of hunger strikes, over issues including the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.

And he reveled in conspiracy theories, elaborating on them in language that could be enigmatic and circuitous. Hidden hands, Mr. Gregory insisted, were behind everything from a crack cocaine epidemic to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; from the murders of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon to the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. Whom to blame? “Whoever the people are who control the system,” he told The Washington Post in 2000.

His fasting led to a keen interest in nutrition. Working in the 1980s with a Swedish health food company, Mr. Gregory developed a weight-reduction powder called Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet. The partners had a falling-out, and the business swooned.

Still, Mr. Gregory remained a fervent health-food advocate. In late 1999, he learned he had lymphoma but rejected chemotherapy, relying instead on vitamins, herbs and exercise. The cancer went into remission.

His activism came at a price, however. For one thing, the cascade of cash that he had once enjoyed turned into a trickle. His family paid, too.

Mr. Gregory moved to Chicago to build a comedy career in the late 1950s. There he met Lillian Smith, a secretary at the University of Chicago, and they were married in 1959. They had 11 children, one of whom, Richard Jr., died in infancy.

In 1973, when cash was still rolling in, they bought a 400-acre farm near Plymouth, Mass. (Why Plymouth? “I think the white folks is coming back, and I’m going to get a handful of Indians and stop ’em there this time,” Mr. Gregory said.) But by the early 1990s, the strapped Gregorys had lost the farm and moved into an apartment in Plymouth.

As the civil rights movement was kicking into high gear, whites who caught Mr. Gregory’s club act came away with a deeper feel for the nation’s shameful racial history. Credit Reg Innell/Toronto Star, via Getty Images

Father absenteeism was a familiar phenomenon for the man born Richard Claxton Gregory in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 1932. He was the second of six children. His father, Presley, disappeared after the birth of each child, and finally left for good. The Gregory children were reared by their mother, Lucille, who scraped by on welfare and a meager income as a maid.

“Kids didn’t eat off the floor,” Mr. Gregory said of their Depression-era poverty. “When I was a kid, you dropped something off the table, it never reached the floor.”

Information about Mr. Gregory’s survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Gregory graduated from Sumner High School in St. Louis, then attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. At both schools he was a track star and enjoyed local fame.
Not that the acclaim was free of complications. In 1961, by then a national figure, he received the key to the city from the mayor of St. Louis. Yet in his hometown he was denied a room at a leading hotel. “They gave me the key to the city,” Mr. Gregory said, “and then they changed all the locks.”
He left college in 1954 and joined the Army, where he was able to work on comedy routines while attached to Special Services. He then returned to college, only to give it up again without graduating.
In 1956 he headed to Chicago, where he worked in small-time clubs at night and at odd jobs by day. He even tried running a club of his own, but that venture failed.

In one part-time job Mr. Gregory sorted mail in a post office. His pattern, he later said, was to toss letters destined for Mississippi into a slot marked “overseas.” That job did not last long.

“I understand there are a great many Southerners in the room tonight,” he began his act. “I know the South very well. I spent 20 years there one night.” He so won over the crowd that Playboy’s Hugh Hefner signed him for three more weeks, then extended the contract.

Despite having sworn off nightclubs in 1973, saying he could no longer work in places where liquor was served, Mr. Gregory returned to them on occasion in later years, a thin presence wreathed in white hair and beard. Though his best days were well behind him, his approach never seemed to waver from principles that he set for himself when starting out. He put it this way in his autobiography:

“I’ve got to go up there as an individual first, a Negro second. I’ve got to be a colored funny man, not a funny colored man.”

Correction: August 20, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated the year of the Sept. 11 attacks. They were in 2001, not 2011.

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